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Gonzaga loses Cinderella status

 
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Gonzaga is ruining a great American tradition. The Zags were ranked No. 1 today for the first time, meaning not only that they’re playing well, but also that they’re able to win a popularity contest.

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That means one thing: Cinderella is dead.

The whole concept. Gone. The idea is for small-time teams to beat the big, bad boys in the NCAA Tournament. It’s a statement about doing things the right way. So we hear their stories, and feel good about teamwork and selflessness beating the entitled. Then, they lose in the second week to a major program with superstars.

It’s tradition.

Gonzaga has been good for 15 years, and has built up big-time budgets and shoe deals. But it has still managed to be seen as an outsider, a small-timer. When you’re No. 1, though, that’s a hard image to maintain.

It robs us of the feel of the movie "Hoosiers." Who’s going to get up on whose shoulders to measure the rim?

With Gonzaga No. 1, the whole concept is shot.

Gonzaga has always been the face of the mid-major. And the little guy is never No. 1, but instead just someone who threatens No. 1. The threat gets bigger and bigger: Butler, Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason. In football, Northern Illinois got to the Orange Bowl and Boise State regulalry appears in BCS bowls.

And while Gonzaga is No. 1, Kentucky might not get into the NCAA Tournament at all, North Carolina is on the outer fringes of the rankings, UCLA is stable ... in football. And the mighty Big East is dead, replaced by the Catholic 7, which apparently is going to include Butler.

Butler isn’t Catholic.

But the conferences are messed up, and a few traditional powerhouses hit a dry spot, and Gonzaga is at its best. It all happened at the same time.

You could say there’s a new reality in college sports, that the ever-increasing success of these smaller programs is proving their values. But that’s not really right. In football, the SEC dominates and the little guy cannot get to the top.

In basketball, it’s a function of the times, where Kentucky, say, still gets the superstars, but then loses them after a year or two to the NBA. That leaves an opening for a team like Gonzaga. But no matter who is ranked No. 1, you’d have to put Indiana, Duke and Kansas ahead of the Zags as favorites to win the championship this year.

Gonzaga is an excellent team, but doesn’t seem like a real No. 1. It has beaten up on an easy conference while the big boys who get to No. 1 keep playing rough conference schedules.

In the end, basketball is still a game for stars. Big moments are won by big-time players, not systems.

The No. 1 ranking in college basketball doesn’t mean much practically. A No. 1 seed would mean more, and Gonzaga is going to have a hard time getting that.

Still, there is symbolism in Gonzaga getting to the top. It has been an impressive and long run. This could be its best chance to get to the Final Four, with its offensive balance and big-time defense.

“It’s never happened here before,’’ Coach Mark Few said over the weekend about the prospect of the top ranking. “It would be an honor. If they think that highly of us, we’ll take it.’’

This could be Few’s best team in his 14 years there. They’ve beaten up on the Big 12, and lost only to Butler and Illinois. Meanwhile, college hoops doesn’t have a dominant team.

It might just be that Gonzaga isn’t the little guy anymore, and has broken free. If so, then the Cinderella thing is ruined only for them. But it feels as if the whole concept is about gone.

Is it possible to just move on now and find new Cinderellas? Something called the New Jersey Institute of Technology is in position to win the Great West Conference.

Imagine if they were get to the tournament. We’d learn all about them, and then they’d knock off one of the big boys.

Like, say, Gonzaga.

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