By Lenn Robbins
Vinny Saglimbeni had about as busy and delightful a Tuesday night the sports editor of a college newspaper can have. As Saglimbeni was putting the finishing touches on the Gonzaga Bulletin, he and the rest of the staff were watching the Zags filet USC, 85-66, to advance to the Final Four.
He was awaiting word Wednesday morning from the university’s sports information director that their credential request had been improved. Which means next weekend he will be one of the chosen few to attend the Final Four in Indianapolis and go nose to nose with the national media.
“That’s something I really appreciate,” said Saglimbeni. “We’ll ask Coach Few the same question he’s heard so many times before, so many times over the last 20 years, and he could easily push aside a student reporter. But he treats us the same as he treats the rest of the media. And that carries over to the players. They’re respectful.”
And what’s, “The Question?”
“This year it’s the pressure to win it all,” Saglimbeni. “He’s been asked that one way or another. In other years, he’s asked about what will be the newest grad transfer or freshman’s roll; how will he fit. But this year it’s about winning it all.”
Yes. That’s “The Question” in Spokane.
Few has heard that since the Zags went to the Final Four in 2017, losing the national championship to North Carolina.
He’s heard it since the first day of the season when Gonzaga was ranked No.1 in the nation and remained there majestically, like the Statue of Liberty. That was the question Few heard after the Zags beat West Virginia, 87-82, the only time they didn’t win by double figures.
That is the question Few has heard throughout the NCAA Tournament as Gonzaga has looked like a veteran international team that plays together and isn’t flustered, while the rest of field has often been herky-jerky on offense, hoping to end up on the correct side of the scoreboard.
Such was the case for Michigan, a team averaging 77 points. The Wolverines were held to 49 in a two-point loss to UCLA, a No.11 seed, that will face Gonzaga in one of Saturday’s semifinals. The Wolverines missed their final eight shots.
Gonzaga opened its rout of USC by making 8-of-14 shots to take a 17-4 lead, leaving the terrific crew of Kevin Harlan and Dan Bonner to conjure up scenarios that would keep viewers through halftime. Houston and Baylor will face off in the other game.
The Question will reach epic proportions this week. With the win over USC, Gonzaga improved to 30-0. Not only is this team trying to win the university’s first NCAA Tournament title but it’s seeking to become the first team to go undefeated since Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana team.
Few and the Zags have shown no signs of pressure. Led by center Drew Timme, he of the marvelous facial hair and flamboyant celebrations, the Zags play with a beaming smile and a precision bounce pass.
It’s those around the program, from the 227,579 folks in Spokane to the 7,295 in the student body that are as tense as the seaside manager of a hotel knowing a hurricane is approaching.
“It’s going to be something if this is the first team to win a championship but I think it will be more a sense of relief,” said Saglimbeni. “Gonzaga has been an elite program for years but outside, people think of it as the team that always chokes in March. They don’t put the cherry on top.
“It would be unbelievable to finish as champions. Everyone on the West Coast knows how good the program is. Over the last six years we’ve been to two Sweet 16’s, two Elite Eights and two Final Fours. How much more can a program really do? Duke isn’t in the tournament. Kentucky isn’t. They’re great programs but look at the consistency.”
A program’s ultimate validation, of course, is to gaze and grin as the video board shows highlights of a national championship won while “One Shining Moment” serenades the soul. If that team is Gonzaga, Few might face what becomes another perennial question: “When will you win a second national title.”
“I think the expectation is that if Gonzaga wins and puts the icing on the cake, that’s the story,” said Saglimbeni. “They’re not done. They’re not settling for one national championship. That’s why they’re getting guys here to keep it going. This program is here to stay.”