Mention Gonzaga and what image comes to mind?
Syracuse guard Andy Rautins didn't even blink before answering, "Always considered a Cinderella team in the NCAA tourney. They've proven themselves time and again.''
In truth, Gonzaga has worn the "Cinderella'' label so long that it's time to hand it down like an old Big Dance dress to St. Mary's, the team that upset the Bulldogs in the West Coast Conference Tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament, where it knocked off second-seeded Villanova in a second-round game yesterday.
After 12 straight NCAA appearances, the Zags can fairly expect to be considered one of the regulars. Yet here they are 2,300 miles away from their home in Spokane, Wash., to play a West Regional second-round game against top seed Syracuse, whose fan base has relocated from the Carrier Dome - about 21/2 hours away - to HSBC Arena to make it feel exactly like home for today's 12:10 p.m. tipoff. Only one of them will survive to reach the actual West Regional next week in Salt Lake City.
It's a very tough spot for Gonzaga (27-6), although the Orange (29-4) will be without injured center Arinze Onuaku for the second straight game.
Last season, the Zags at least got to put off a meeting with eventual national champion North Carolina until the Sweet 16. This season, they were hurt by the loss in their conference tournament. Of course, Syracuse lost its first game in the Big East Tournament and still received a No. 1 seed. Gonzaga falls to St. Mary's and drops all the way to the eighth line of the bracket.
It suggests a certain lack of respect for everything coach Mark Few has achieved at the small Catholic school. He was an assistant when the Zags first reached the Elite Eight as a true Cinderella in 1999, and he has been head man the past 11 seasons, winning anywhere from 23 to 29 games each year.
"We probably took a hit for losing in our league tournament that, in retrospect, probably shouldn't have been that big of a hit,'' Few said. "I thought we've been pretty darn consistent all year with how we've won and where we played and who we beat and to win our league.''
The next time anyone says it's impossible for St. John's to regain a position of prominence in college basketball, someone should point to the job Few has done with Gonzaga. St. John's is located in the heart of one of the great basketball hotbeds in the country. Lacking that local talent base, Few has expanded his recruiting net to Canada.
No doubt, the WCC is nowhere near as tough as the Big East, but you might have a hard time proving that to Villanova today. To counter competition questions, Gonzaga has taken its show on the road, going from one end of the country to the other in search of quality wins.
"He's a tremendous basketball coach,'' Boeheim said yesterday. "They have a major-league program. They can play with anybody and have been for a number of years.''
In this year of the upset, the Zags come into their game against the Orange more like Cinderella's tough big brother. Forget the 1-8 seeding thing.
"What this comes down to really is matchups,'' Few said. "It doesn't matter if you have a great seed if you end up playing somebody that's kind of like your kryptonite, which I think Villanova and Richmond found.''
When they lost to St. Mary's, he meant.