Gonzaga has enjoyed a built-in following in Utah, mainly because of the connections to Zags/Jazz legend John Stockton and the McCarthey family of GU benefactors. So if the NCAA committee sends the Bulldogs to Vivint Smart Home Arena next week as the No. 1 seed in the West, as is universally forecast, they will be embraced. Or will they?
In the Bulldogs' last visit to downtown Salt Lake City four years ago, when Stockton's son David was a rotation regular, No. 16 seed Southern University surprisingly took Gonzaga to the wire. Even the Stockton devotees in the building got behind the underdogs. "That arena flipped on us just like that," coach Mark Few said in "Glory Hounds," a book about Gonzaga basketball. "That was shocking to our guys."
Few recalled that scene in Tuesday's postgame news conference. When I asked if he would welcome another assignment to Salt Lake City, he said, "If they want to cheer for us, yeah. If they do that crap they did last time, then no. … If we have a following, make it some kind of advantage for us."
The Bulldogs survived Southern's upset bid, but then were knocked off by Wichita State in the round of 32. Gonzaga had made memorable visits to the Huntsman Center under Few in 2003, losing to Arizona in an epic, double-overtime game, and in '06, advancing to the Sweet 16 by beating Indiana behind Adam Morrison's shooting display.
This team looks better than those others. The related question is how to process Gonzaga's performance Tuesday from a BYU perspective. Favorably? Well, mostly. The first half looked exactly like the BYU-SMC semifinal game, only different. The Bulldogs stormed to a 39-18 lead, stifling a Gaels offense that produced 45 points in the second half of Monday's 81-50 win.
It's true: The team that handed BYU coach Dave Rose the most convincing loss of his 12-career went 6 of 28 from the field vs. Gonzaga in the first half. In contrast to BYU's second-half disappearance, though, the Gaels (28-4) rallied to within five points with 10 minutes left before fading and absorbing a decisive defeat.
Having upset the Zags last month, BYU is tied to everything they do. After an NCAA Tournament run, teams like to point out that they lost to the eventual champion as Utah has done an incredible 11 times, most recently vs. Duke in 2015. But what if BYU remains the only conqueror of a 38-1 championship team from Gonzaga?
The Bulldogs looked that good in spurts Tuesday, while taking care of the WCC's second-best team for the third time. "Two things make them good: They're hard to stop … and they're hard to score on," said SMC coach Randy Bennett.
The day began nicely for Gonzaga, with an 86-75 victory over Saint Mary's in the women's championship game. The Bulldogs scored 32 points in the first quarter and forward Jill Barta finished with 37 points. Sophomore guard Laura Stockton, the fifth of Nada and John Stockton's six children and the fourth sibling to play college basketball, made the all-tournament team as David once did.
The Gonzaga women needed the victory to earn an NCAA bid; they're projected as a No. 12 seed. Much higher expectations will accompany Few's team, as Gonzaga seeks the program's first Final Four bid in a 19th consecutive tournament appearance.
Regardless of where the Bulldogs' run ends, it likely will start in Salt Lake City. Good for them. Even better for us. And we've been warned about cheering for the underdogs, against the Bulldogs.