You hear people always mention the "Gonzaga Way" as a vague descriptor for how little schools all over the nation can become consistent players in the national eye. From Saint Mary's to Butler, the comparisons between the program that Dan Monson and Mark Few built are always the first to be made.
One of the key aspects of that mysterious Gonzaga way is the "play anyone, anywhere" mentality. Part of that was out of necessity. Why fly into Spokane when you just know that Gonzaga will fly halfway around the world to play you? Anyone, anywhere.
That isn't the case so much anymore. Gonzaga has been able to establish several consistent series with many stellar teams across the nation. This past season, we saw the Zags face off against SMU, Arizona, and UCLA. They've had one-and-ones against Butler, Kansas State, and of course Memphis, in recent seasons. Ever since the Zags became a consistent top 25 team, the bedrock of the Gonzaga way was a tough non-conference slate to help both prepare the team for the NCAA Tournament and to ensure that the WCC wouldn't punish the seed number to highly each year.
So I give you a simple question: who would you like to see the Gonzaga Bulldogs play consistently?
I'm talking virtually year in and year out. Prior to a couple of years ago, that question for me would've been an easy one: the Washington Huskies. I want that trash-talking rivalry back up and running forever and ever. For the time being, my gift has been granted, so now I can move onto other teams.
Here they are, in no particular order.
The Zags and Xavier have already played out series before, but as a team that you know will consistently year in and year out be a good team, it is hard to look past Xavier. Now, I hear the grumbles. Xavier was ranked this year for the first time in four years. However, they also have made the NCAA Tournament in three straight years, and the team has won at least 20 games every season since Y2K except twice. Xavier charged into the fold in the early 1980s and hasn't looked back.
There are also a lot of similarities between the two schools. Both are Jesuit universities and both schools have roughly the same enrollment. Xavier also plays in the Big East, which would give us Gonzaga fans a desperate taste of what a good conference could look like. Most of all, there is a little bit of wiggle room here. Xavier is a good team, but it isn't like trying to roll into Cameron Indoor Stadium and defeating Duke at home--no matter the year, there would be a definite chance the Zags could pick up a good road win.
This is mainly because Tom Izzo also comes from the Mark Few philosophy. Although often times they are on neutral courts, Michigan State has never had any issues scheduling incredibly tough opponents on their non-conference slate. This past season their second game of was against Kansas, and the year before their second game was against Duke! You are also looking at year in and year out one of the most consistent teams in the nation, as well as a team that plays in the Big Ten, so it would expose the Zags to a whole different brand of basketball early in the season.
There have long been rumors about the Zags and the Spartans playing each other to celebrate the legacy of Jud Heathcoate. This is a game that needs to happen, and continue to happen. Izzo and Few can go fly fishing together.
I know, the cringe. No one wants to watch an ESPN broadcast of a game that will instantly bring back memories of falling to the Shockers as a No. 1 seed, but this is just out of pure necessity. Everyone likes to think that Wichita State is the next big thing (and granted, I'd argue that Butler beat us at our own small school game years ago). But it looks like Greg Marshall has put together a consistent program in Wichita, and the Shockers still have to go out on the road and schedule teams. They played at both Tulsa, Saint Louis and Seton Hall on the road this year.
The Missouri Valley Conference isn't a powerhouse either. It was rated lower than the West Coast Conference this year by Ken Pomeroy, so the Shockers are in the same bind the Zags are. If they are good, and they are running through their conference, they need some high-profile wins to make it work in March.
Right now, we have games against UCLA, Arizona and Tennessee definitively on the slate. But it also seems like there is room for one more really good team in there. The three picks above our mine, what about you?