The Blueprint: Gonzaga is what McNeese aspires to be

Published 8:53 pm Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Gonzaga has become what McNeese State dreams of being one day.

The Bulldogs are no longer a Cinderella story made from one big run in March.

Gonzaga is the superstar in mid-major basketball, the first genuine little-school darling in the bracket world. The Zags are a program up from nowhere to one of the nation’s elite.

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Gonzaga is not the novelty it once was but instead is an elite program that has played for national championships and been rewarded with No. 1 seeds despite size and conference affiliation.

The days of being a bracket busters are long gone for Zags. Gonzaga may not be college basketball blue blood, but it is clearly new blood in the sport. And McNeese would love to get there.

“They have a great program,” said McNeese Athletic Director Heath Schroyer. “And I have always said, ‘Why can’t McNeese the Gonzaga of the South?’”

That might be a few years off, if ever, but the Cowboys will get a close-up look at Gonzaga on Thursday when the programs meet for the first time in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament’s opening round in Salt Lake City.

The Cowboys (30-3) will be making their third tournament appearance and first in 22 years. For Gonzaga, the game will be old hat.

The 25-7 Zags will be making their 26th tournament appearance and 25th in a row, the third-longest active streak in the NCAA dating to 1999. Gonzaga has been to two national championship games.

The Bulldogs are 44-25 all-time in the tourney and have been a No. 1 seed five times, four since 2017. They are the lone program to make the last eight Sweet 16 rounds.

McNeese has been to the tournament twice before and has yet to win a game.

“They have become a tremendous program and will be a huge challenge for us,” said McNeese head coach Will Wade. “We will be able to take our temperature and see where we are with them, that’s for sure.”

Gonzaga was awarded the No. 5 seed in the Midwest while McNeese is No. 12.

“It is a great chance for us to play against a team like Gonzaga, one that has a national reputation,” said McNeese guard Shahada Wells. “We grew up watching them in the tournament. If you rooted for the upset, you rooted for them.”

Wells got a look at the Zags last season while at Texas Christian. Gonzaga knocked him and the Horned Frogs out of the tourney in the opening game.

“It will be nice to get a second chance,” Wells said.

Gonzaga wasn’t always a basketball power. Prior to 1999 the Zags made one tournament appearance, the same number as the Cowboys at that time. Then things changed.

A run to the Elite Eight from a 10 seed that spring and the promotion of Mark Few from assistant to head coach followed, and so did the victories. Before that, Gonzaga was known, like McNeese, as the home of a star guard who played for championships in the NBA. John Stockton was the Bulldogs’ Joe Dumars.

Now they are a power every year to do damage in the tournament. They are also a typical pick to go far in brackets.

Yet a handful of national media are on the McNeese bandwagon, picking the Cowboys for the upset.

“We don’t look at what they say,” Wade said. “We have a lot of respect for what Gonzaga has done over the years. They have earned all the attention they get.”

The Cowboys says they looking to use this chance to make a name for themselves and maybe launch the program for future success.