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National Championship or....bust?

In college basketball, what denotes success isn’t so simple.

NCAA Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Gonzaga vs Saint Mary’s Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

I am a fan of the Seattle Mariners, as much as one can be a fan of the Seattle Mariners. As most people know by now, the Mariners are currently riding the longest streak of futility in professional sports, having missed the postseason for the past 21 years.

If you ask me what denotes a successful season for the Seattle Mariners, my reply isn’t even a postseason appearance. It starts at meaningful baseball in September. That is where the standards begin. The floor is in the flooded, unfinished basement and the ceiling is the first story of the dilapidated building.

On the other side of my sports fandom, I have the Gonzaga Bulldogs. As we are all aware, the Zags have made the NCAA Tournament every year since 1999. Throughout many of those years, they were just one of 64 teams, with no real hope to meaningfully expect a deep run.

In the past few years, that has changed. The Zags have made two national championships in the last five years (four tournaments). Since 2015, their earliest exits have been the Sweet 16 in 2016 and 2018. After that, it is two Elite Eight appearances. These numbers could be even higher if the 2020 Tournament happened.

Gonzaga opened the preseason as the No. 1 ranked team in the country. They will finish the regular season as the No. 1 ranked team in the country. The lowest they dropped in the AP Polls was No. 5. They have been either the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the country as measured by KenPom the entire year. The Zags are the title favorite and just look at these odds to make the Final Four!

By all accounts, anything less than a Final Four is a disappointment, strictly from expectations—and one could arguably extend that to a national championship, just as easily as one can argue that is not the case.

Success is a weird thing in American sports. Just ask the Seattle Mariners. That record-setting 116 wins season looks great on paper, but its luster and shine were diminished because they were steamrolled by the New York Yankees in the playoffs.

In America, success isn’t necessarily tied to the total number of wins, or if you are the team that “finished on top of the table.” Success is tied to the number of trophies on the fireplace mantle, the number of banners hanging in the arena, the number of times you cut the nets down.

That is why I think the question of whether or not the season is a success if the Zags don’t win it all is an actual interesting question.

For me, personally, I think it is unfair to put national championship or bust expectations on Gonzaga because the NCAA Tournament is a grind unlike most other sports. There is so much that has to go right to make the championship game that even the best teams throughout the years will fail in their endeavors.

Just ask all the No. 1 seeds in 2011. The Connecticut Huskies, a three seed who finished 9-9 in Big East play that season won that year. Not a single soul would consider UConn the best team throughout the entire season, but they were the best squad when it mattered.

March Madness has so much chaos, it is almost unfair to place the burden of the championship, the thing we all desire so much, as our baseline expectations.

On the other hand, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are not the Seattle Mariners. There are actual expectations here that come with the team’s success. At some point, the Gonzaga Bulldogs have to break through and win that national championship. No one remembers the Buffalo Bills success in the early 1990s outside of the fact they lost each Super Bowl. Second place is the first loser in American sports.

I think “failure” in the question is a bit strong. But something so binary as a win or a loss rarely allows for nuance in the language. To a certain extent, depending on what your personal expectations are, when the dust settles and the season is over, it either will be a success or it will not.

For successful teams, such as Gonzaga, those expectations get placed higher and higher every year. There are only so many times a team can make the national championship before finally cresting that ledge becomes more of a requirement than a dream. It is a rather privileged place to exist in the realm of sports, but Gonzaga fans are privileged in that they have watched one of the more unique stories in sports evolve into a consistent Final Four threat.