The Gonzaga Bulldogs are pretty much the polar opposite of the team that usually plays basketball on the floor that will host six games of the NCAA Tournament at the Huntsman Center starting today. They wear blue, primarily, not red. They represent a tiny private school run by Catholic priests, not a sprawling urban research institution founded by a Mormon pioneer. And they're trying to build on a growing national reputation, not taking an unwelcome breather from a well-established one.
Yet the "Zags" figure to be the overwhelming hometown favorite among the eight teams playing here, even though they're some 550 miles from home.
"That would be nice," coach Mark Few said.
Probably, he can bank on it.
Not only are the Bulldogs ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and armed with arguably the best player in the country in charismatic Adam Morrison, but they have a long list of connections to Salt Lake City and the University of Utah, as well as an inspiring back story and a built-in appeal to the significant Catholic community along the Wasatch Front.
"Everyone's excited about Gonzaga coming here," said Ogden's Colleen Letendre, one of dozens of fans who watched the Zags make final preparations for today's first-round game against the Xavier Musketeers.
Of course, legendary Jazz point guard John Stockton is a Gonzaga alumnus, having long since educated legions of Utahns about his alma mater in his hometown of Spokane, Wash.
But since playing one of the greatest tournament games ever in a double-overtime loss to No. 1 Arizona in Salt Lake City three years ago, the Zags also have moved into a $25 million campus athletic center financed largely by Salt Lake City's Phil and Tom McCarthey, the philanthropist brothers and fellow GU grads whose family formerly owned The Salt Lake Tribune. What's more, Few is such good friends with Utah coach Ray Giacoletti that he stayed at Giacoletti's home last year while trying to recruit Judge Memorial's Daniel Deane - who ultimately committed to Giacoletti and the Utes. "There's not a whole lot of people who you truly trust in this business," Giacoletti said. "But we have that mutual trust." The men met while Few was a Gonzaga assistant coach and Giacoletti was an assistant at Washington, and have grown so close that their families now vacation together during the offseason. The men met for dinner with their coaching staffs after the Zags arrived in town, too, and Giacoletti even tried to recruit Morrison when he was still the coach at Eastern Washington.
"Once Gonzaga got involved, it was over," Giacoletti recalled.
That's how things have changed in the seven years since Gonzaga made a splash with its unexpected run into the tournament's quarterfinals. They have built themselves into a national presence with a powerful recruiting reach, and they're making their eighth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament with a 27-3 record. That's something Tom McCarthey would have thought impossible a decade or two ago, before school President Rev. Robert Spitzer committed resources - many of them donated by the McCartheys - to building the program.
"If they made it to the final four of the West Coast Conference, they were tickled," McCarthey recalled. "For a little Jesuit school, they've done incredibly well." The next step? Reaching the Sweet 16, at least. That's the goal Morrision has set, after three straight second-round losses.
And Giacoletti believes the Zags will have fans on their side, which is what he told a Spokane TV station that interviewed him the other day. "I said Salt Lake is a bigger Spokane," he said, "and with the connections with Stockton and the McCartheys and everything else, this could be a hell of a homecourt advantage for them."