Originally Published: March 23, 2013

Gonzaga lost more than just a game on Saturday

By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

As March Madness approaches, one program or player usually captivates the country.

It happens every year. Fans and media members alike tend to gravitate toward someone or something each spring in our collective efforts to personify the moment. The NCAA tournament is all about dreams and overcoming obstacles to achieve them.

And the Big Dance's arrangement presents enough uncertainty and unpredictability to support our assumptions and hopes that a team apart from the game's powerhouse country club can somehow make a run to the Final Four. So we search for the marginalized squad or star -- college basketball's young Carrie Underwood -- with the potential to fulfill the perennial storyline.

Gonzaga was supposed to be that squad in 2013.

About a month before it became the first 1-seed to exit the tournament following a Saturday night loss to 9-seed Wichita State, the Bulldogs fit perfectly into the concept. With win after win, Gonzaga climbed the polls until it was the top-ranked team in America.

Drew Barnham
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)Gonzaga's season had gone almost perfectly. Until it ran into WSU.

The Zags defeated Oklahoma State and Kansas State during their nonconference season, lost to Butler on a fluke play in January and toyed with the West Coast Conference in the weeks leading up to the day they secured the program's first No. 1 national ranking.

It was the story of improbable triumph that many craved and ultimately embraced. The annual knock against Gonzaga, however, remained. The Zags have a niche -- they're the blue-chip mid-major -- but few postseason results to justify the praise.

This is a program, of course, that hasn't advanced beyond the Sweet 16 since that stunning 1999 Elite Eight run that put it on the map. So why should anyone believe the Zags now with so many missed expectations from the past?

So there were haters, too. Oh, were there haters. They didn't believe the hype. They thought Kelly Olynyk's numbers were skewed by the competition he faced in the WCC. They figured those nonconference wins were blips, not concrete evidence the Zags deserved so much praise.

So just like that, the little school from Spokane was the most polarizing team in the field. You either felt strongly they deserved to be a 1-seed or you felt strongly otherwise. Fair or not, the Gonzaga program was on trial this month. And we, the college basketball viewing public, were the jury.

And then, just like that, it happened -- before we could barely get the argument off the ground.

Just one loss. That's all it took for the Zags to confirm their doubters' suspicions.

Just one L against a Wichita State squad that lost six Missouri Valley Conference games solidified Gonzaga's status as a team that can't be trusted.

The Nos. 3, 4 and 5 seeds had already been dismissed from the West Region. Win Saturday and the Zags were a victory over a 12 or 13 away from that long-awaited trip back to the regional finals. If there were ever a year for the 32-2 Bulldogs to finally prove that they were legitimate national title contenders, this was it. Some of their greatest regional threats had left the building.

And still, the Zags failed. Again.

Don't call them a mid-major program now. Don't place them back into the have-nots category for the sake of tempering the backlash. Don't make excuses (yes, Gary Bell's injury was a factor, but the Zags lost because they refused to guard the Shockers for 40 minutes).

The Zags had everything necessary for a Final Four run, including the easiest path of all the 1-seeds in the tournament. And now they're going home before the second weekend of the Big Dance.

This is the worst loss in the program's history. There's no way around it. Who's to say they'll ever get this opportunity again?

The keys were in the ignition. The Zags just had to drive. Instead, Gonzaga stalled. Again.

And America's heartwarming story became its greatest disappointment. Again.

The pending criticism is fair. For many years, Mark Few's program fought to prove that it's worthy of the same prestige that the big boys enjoy. The Zags wanted respect. And this season, they had it.

It's gone now. And it might be awhile before they regain it.

Mark Few
AP Photo/George FreyFew programs win as many games as the Zags. But they've made it out of the first weekend of the NCAAs just once since Adam Morrison left in 2006.

The next time Few has a team that possesses the characteristics of a contender, we will question its potential. There have been too many letdowns to make us believe again. We've been fooled by the underdog element that the once-obscure program from the Pacific Northwest has thrived on for more than a decade.

But this is not Florida Gulf Coast.

This is a Gonzaga squad that's spent nearly 15 years climbing college basketball's Mount Everest. And each time it's come close enough to see the summit, the Zags have not scaled that mountain.

Every year, we believe that they'll finally get to the top and this lingering plotline will finally end with the glory every feel-good movie promises. Instead, we're left with another disaster and more missed opportunities.

Olynyk might be the best player Few has ever recruited. Elias Harris, Kevin Pangos and Sam Dower anchored his best supporting cast. Few had been as astute as ever on the sideline.

Everything you desired for your favorite team, Gonzaga had it.

And it wasn't enough when it mattered.

Some of the nation's other contenders avoided similar fates on Saturday. Michigan crushed VCU and Michigan State ran away from Memphis. Louisville beat Colorado State, arguably the Mountain West's best team, by 26 points. And Oregon continued to roll with a convincing double-digit victory over Saint Louis.

As the NCAA tourney began, many figured Gonzaga would advance, too. Its placement and talent demanded as much.

On Saturday night, however, things fell apart for the program.

After the game, Few looked like a man who knew that more than just a game was lost Saturday night when he was asked by a television reporter about the crushing loss.

"I'll have to watch the tape," he said matter-of-factly. The problem, however, is that every time you push play on Gonzaga's season, it ends with the same disappointing scene.

At some point we're going to stop being surprised.

Roundup From Auburn Hills

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Virginia Commonwealth Rams

Michigan Wolverines

MVP: Mitch McGary was the catalyst in Michigan's 25-point win over VCU. The freshman finished with 21 points (10-for-11), 14 rebounds, an assists and a steal.

X factor: VCU's "HAVOC" defense led to 12 Michigan turnovers. But there was just as much havoc for VCU's shaky offense (3-for-16 from the 3-point line).

That was...amazing: I knew Michigan was good. But when the Wolverines get production from McGary in the post, they're arguably one of the four or five best teams in the country.

-- Mike Rothstein

Roundup From Salt Lake City

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Harvard Crimson

Arizona Wildcats

MVP: Mark Lyons, a transfer from Xavier, led the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 with an impressive effort. He finished with 27 points (12-for-17), three assists and a steal.

X factor: Harvard started 2-for-22 from the field. The Crimson didn't record their first field goal until the 12:17 mark.

That was … another statement: The Pac-12 was underrated according to perception and seeding. Arizona's lopsided win over Harvard was just more proof that the league's teams were not properly assessed entering the tournament.

-- Myron Medcalf