For the first time since both of the writers for this site were entering their teenage years, Gonzaga won't at least have a share of the WCC regular-season championship. During the past 11 seasons, Gonzaga has become a mainstay in the national basketball conversation, built a top-notch facility on campus and has earned a spot in every NCAA Tournament. Guys like Ronny Turiaf, Adam Morrison, Austin Daye and Jeremy Pargo have played in the NBA and the Zags have pursued and received commitments from numerous Top 100 recruits.
Two members of the coaching staff have left to run their own programs, but were replaced by two equally excellent coaches who have resumes that would make them coveted by any team in the country. The previously mentioned Adam Morrison earned a handful of National Player of the Year awards, while Demetri Goodson earned a spot in Gonzaga lore with his game-winning shot against Western Kentucky. While there have been some disappointments, ranging from the loss to UCLA in the Sweet 16, to the suspension of Josh Heytvelt and Theo Davis, it's very difficult to look back at this run and do anything but smile. Besides the coaching staff and Athletic Department, there probably wasn't anyone who would have believed you if you tried to predict that this program from Spokane, WA would rise to national prominence.
With all of that said, the key to building on this success is to look forward and continue to strive for greatness and improve. What I am going to try and figure out is what the future might hold for this program.
When it comes to facilities and national appeal, Gonzaga still holds an advantage over every school in the WCC, including BYU. While BYU has the tremendous Marriott Center, it also has a smaller niche of recruits that are interested in the program. As the Pac-12 continues to go through its struggles as a conference, schools like Gonzaga, San Diego St and UNLV can continue and poach guys that many people would have assumed would be bound for the Pac-12. It's important to remember that what recruits want is the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament and the chance to play on ESPN against big-time competition, with the hope that with strong play and visibility, a shot at the NBA might be available. Gonzaga can offer those opportunities with as much certainty as nearly any program on the West Coast.
So now that Gonzaga has spent the past 12 years establishing itself in the national conversation, what has to happen in order for the Zags to take the next step and make a Final Four? Too be honest, tournament success is such a crapshoot that it's hard to predict anything like that. The draw you get in the tournament is so important. The example I always use is the 2009 team. That group was playing great basketball at the end of the season and had some of the best talent and depth Spokane has ever seen. If they were in any other bracket besides the one North Carolina was in, I truly believe it would have been a Final Four team. However, the tailspin during December that saw losses to Portland St. and Utah caused GU to fall down at least a seed, which setup the Sweet 16 matchup with the Tar Heels. The one thing that Gonzaga could really use is a Sweet 16 run in the next couple of seasons. The kind of notoriety that comes with advancing to the second weekend catches the eye of the type of recruits that could potentially push the program over the edge in the coming years (ex. Zach LaVine).
The other reality that Gonzaga will most certainly face, perhaps as soon as this offseason, is coaching turnover. I don't expect Mark Few to go anywhere, but there is a good chance that Ray Giacoletti could find the right fit and return to the head-coaching ranks. If that happens, I encourage the coaching staff to go out of its comfort zone and bring in someone that has fresh opinions and strategies. Tommy Lloyd and Donny Daniels are both excellent recruiters, with Lloyd being arguably the top International recruiter in college basketball. There are a couple coaches that could be on the hot seat at the end of this season who I think would be awesome additions to the Gonzaga staff should a spot open, but I will keep those to myself until a position opens. However, I think that coming up short this season could be a benefit for the coaches, as it should cause them to do a full evaluation of how everything is run, from practices to substitution patterns. When you are so successful for so long, it's natural to become complacent and believe that what you have always done will continue to work.
There are very few coaches in the country that wouldn't love the chance to have the type of backcourt foundation that Gonzaga should have for the next two or three years. Building a roster around the core of Kevin Pangos and GBJ is an exciting proposition, especially when you consider that you have guys like Sam Dower, Kelly Olynyk, Ryan Spangler and potentially Przemek Karnowski as a future foundation in the paint. Factor in the potential addition of either Amedeo Della Valle or Mark McLaughlin at the wing for next season to go along with Guy Landry-Edi, and that is a pretty special group to work with, especially if Kyle Dranginis has the versatility to make an impact at all the perimeter positions.
I think if you ask any Gonzaga fan, the streak really should have come to an end last season, but a stunning late season collapse from St. Mary's allowed it to extend for one more year. Knowing the question marks that surrounded this group on the perimeter, there was a definite sense that this could be the season as well. What makes it frustrating is the manner in which it happened, highlighted by the maddeningly frustrating loss at USF. However, no matter how bummed you may be about the streak ending, remember that barring some stunning turn of events, this team will be playing in the NCAA Tournament. You don't win a National Championship by winning a regular-season conference championship, you win one by playing in the NCAA Tournament, and once again Gonzaga should be one of the 68 teams that can have that dream on Selection Sunday.