By Lenn Robbins
If you didn’t know any better, you might think you were watching a cult in action, which come to think of it, isn’t that far from the truth. At 12:15 p.m. every Wednesday prior to a home game, especially the big ones against BYU or Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga students all across the Spokane campus can be seen with their heads buried in their cellphones.
At exactly 12:15, the tweet goes out on Twitter.
It tells the location on campus – where a board member of the Kennel Club, Gonzaga’s outrageously fervent student organization of 1,800 – is waiting to assign a number for Tent City. Similar to Duke’s Krzyzewskiville, Gonzaga’s Tent City, located either on Foley lawn or Herak quad, is where students camp out for the privilege of getting one of the 1,200 seats reserved for the student section, aka, The Kennel Club.
“As soon as the Tweet comes out, everyone just runs to the location,” said Vinny Saglimbeni, a sports editor at the Gonzaga Bulletin. “It’s super, super fun. It seems like everyone on campus is running around. It’s unique.”
This unique tradition, started in 2006 (the Kennel Club was founded in 1984) is one of the reasons Gonzaga is one of the most endearing (not quaint!) programs in college basketball. Try this approach at a big state school and you could see 10,000 running of the students, like a scene out of World War Z.
Gonzaga’s small enrollment (5,238) compared to UCLA (44,947), it’s opponent in Saturday night’s semifinal (8:34 p.m.; CBS), allows this Kennel Club mad dash to take place. March Madness, of course, culminates Monday night with the Gonzaga-UCLA winner facing the Baylor-Houston winner.
What we have Saturday night is the remarkable and the remarkably resilient in one game, with the rebirth and the reshaping in the other.
Gonzaga, the No.1 seed in the East, has blitzed its way to the Final Four, outscoring its four opponents by an average of 88.3-64.3. The undefeated Zags (30-0) having been remarkable on offense, converting 129 field goals off 83 assists. While every other team has struggled at times offensively, the Zags have played like a veteran Euro team.
The Zags are looking to win their first NCAA Tournament title and become the first team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to go undefeated. Considering the obstacles of playing a season under constant threat from the pandemic, it would be an accomplishment for the ages.
“Couldn’t be happier,” said coach Mark Few. “Happier for the players, obviously, the staff — the Gonzaga community, Spokane, everything to just get all the way back here to another Final Four. It’s pretty cool.”
Their opponent, UCLA, has been the polar opposite, relying on defense and physicality. It’s a far cry from the talent-laden, John Wooden-coached teams that won 10 NCAA titles from 1964-75. UCLA has a tradition unmatched in college basketball, with 11 titles overall.
The Bruins only won one with a coach not named Wooden. Jim Harrick led UCLA to the 1995 title. He was fired a year later for NCAA violations. Since then the Bruins have had four head coaches before hiring Mick Cronin two years ago. The son of a coach, Cronin’s teams play like they’re in training for an MMA fight.
It’s worked in this tournament as the No.11 Bruins (22-9) came out of the First Four by winning two overtime games and a 51-49 Elite Eight white-knuckler over No.1 Michigan in the East Region. The Bruins have been remarkably resilient and one gets the sense that Cronin will return the program to national prominence on a consistent basis.
“Well, look, obviously you know, I knew what I was — I knew the expectations, right,” said Cronin about taking the UCLA job. “I mean, it’s pretty clear at UCLA.”
Line – No.1 Gonzaga -14 over No. 11 UCLA – Over/under 145.5.
Prediction: Gonzaga, 79-64, Taking Gonzaga, giving the 14. Taking the under.
Baylor has an experienced a rebirth under coach Scott Drew, 50, who literally grew with this program. Before Drew arrived for 2003-04 season, Baylor was the poster child for lack of institutional (and moral) control.
Former Baylor player Patrick Dennehy went missing and teammate Carlton Dotson pled guilty to killing him in 2003. Former coach Dave Bliss, who lied to investigators and tried to paint Dennehy as a drug dealer, was given a 10-year show cause penalty to the NCAA, meaning he couldn’t coach an NCAA institution without getting approved. That never happened. Neither did winning at Baylor, which didn’t post a winning season until 2008.
“Once we got into the season and you found out that most of your team were walk-ons and most of them weren’t over 6’2″, then you realized it might be tougher than you originally thought,” Drew said of his first season. “But obviously the goal was always to build a program that could consistently compete and have an opportunity to play in March.”
The Bears (26-2), the No.1 seed in the South Region, will make their first Final Four appearance in 71 years when they face Houston (28-3), the No.2 seed in the Midwest. Baylor, which allows just 65.5 points per game (51st nationally), locks down on defense by getting into opposing players and taking away passing lanes.
The fact that Drew, in his 18th season, has been able to revive this program is nothing short of remarkable. How do you sell a player and his parents on a program in which a teammate kills another teammate and the coach lies about it? Yet here is Baylor, going for its first NCAA Tournament title.
If the Bears are relentless on defense than Houston is flat out smothering. The Cougars are second in the nation in scoring defense (57.3 points per game). They combine UCLA’s toughness with Baylor’s relentless chest-to-chest attack.
In other words, Kelvin Sampson’s teams bear no resemblance to the Phi Slama Jama teams coached by Guy Lewis when Houston went to its last Final in 1984. Led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, Houston was one of the most electrifying teams in college basketball history, losing in the championship game in 1983 and 84.
Houston isn’t electric but its tenacity on defense and attack of the offensive glass is impressive in its own right. The style is a reflection of Sampson, who looks like he’d be aggressive ordering his morning coffee. Whether it’s enough for the Cougars to win its first national title remains to be seen.
“And once we got through the first year, we just started adding pieces, and we did it brick by brick,” said Sampson, who took over the program in 2014-15. We weren’t in a hurry. We didn’t try to cut any corners. We did it brick by brick.
Line – No.1 Baylor -5 over No. 2 Houston – Over/under 134.5.
Prediction: Baylor 68-65, Taking Houston and the points. Taking the under.