For the first time in 11 years, Gonzaga ends the season without a share of the conference title, ending the longest active streak in the NCAA and the second longest streak of all time.
This morning, like most mornings, I am making coffee. On the weekends I like to make my coffee with a French press - because I have a bit more time at home. I'm a creature of habit. This morning, like most mornings, is similar to my other mornings. Only this morning there is a slight difference in the air. That is because this morning, unlike other mornings, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are not holding any slice of the West Coast Conference title pie.
Late last night, Saint Mary's withstood a pesky University of San Francisco team to win the WCC title. As the people who follow Zags basketball know, and for the people that do not, Gonzaga had either won outright or shared the conference title for 11 straight years until last night. ESPN and Root Sports like to call it the "Decade of Dominance" when they show games because apparently the world loves alliterations. It was the longest active streak in the nation, second to the Kansas Jayhawks who have won the Big 12 eight straight times. The all-time record is held by the UCLA juggernaut of the late 60s and 70s that won 13 straight conference titles. To put that into a frame of historical reference, Coach Mark Few prepared for Y2K by teaching his teams how to win incessantly. The Zags were winning conference titles before YouTube existed to show the highlights.
This all may seem a bit of gloating. The most common response to this streak has always been the highly out of touch, "Well if (insert my college basketball team here) played in the WCC instead of (insert my college basketball team's league here), we could win that many games as well." That is true. I'm sure Ohio State University and its 100 bajillion people that attend could field a team that could obliterate a league made up largely of small Christian schools. It is an argument that is truly apples and oranges.
Now it is true that the WCC isn't exactly a conference powerhouse. It has generally sent one team to the NCAA tournament, but in recent years the balance of power has slowly been shifting. Saint Mary's has not only taken a share of the conference title in recent years, but has also had a couple of NCAA runs (including a Sweet 16 bid). The addition of BYU to the league this year probably meant that Gonzaga's streak was going to end sooner than later as well. 11 years is a long time to keep on winning when you have a target on your back that is larger than your jersey. Few mid-major teams have enjoyed such a dominant power position in their leagues as Gonzaga has - probably the closet comparison could be recent Memphis teams in the Conference-USA.
So being the mighty WCC giant, teams consistently gives beyond their best shot to topple Gonzaga. Student sections make "Beat Gonzaga" shirts and then subsequently rush the court after their team does so. Many of conference games with Gonzaga feature one opposing player whose season average is 6.7 points but is deciding for that night that 28 points are a nice round number. Eventually, with the quality of play increasing in the league, these bad losses were going to be harder and harder to soak up. 2012 is when the world ends according to that terrible John Cusack film, but for Gonzaga the world isn't over - just the slow slog into the record books.
This year the WCC featured four teams with 10 league wins. The top four (Saint Mary's, Gonzaga, BYU, Loyola Marymount) are separated by three games and barring some enormous oversight on the account of the selection committee - three teams will be dancing next month. LMU is only graduating a couple players this year. USF is graduating three. The point being that if Gonzaga didn't end the streak this year, then it would have been just as hard to tie UCLA's streak next year, and even harder to top UCLA's streak the year after.
On this second cup of coffee now, I'm going to congratulate Saint Mary's on a hard fought conference title. It is the first time in 23 years that Saint Mary's has outright held the title and it is going to be even harder to keep it next year. Randy Bennett has tapped the Australian pipeline and Saint Mary's is definitely a team that any smart college coach will not want to face come March. As many a college coach has said, winning the first time is the easy part - to continue winning is where it gets tough. Kansas is now next in line with their hard fought eighth straight title. But in a Big 12 that features Missouri, Kansas State, Texas, and Baylor amongst everyday opponents, I wouldn't put a lot of money on Bill Self and company pulling off the five more years required to tie UCLA's run. People love it when records fall, but UCLA has a slight stranglehold on many of them in college basketball, and 13 straight conference titles is one record I wouldn't bank on falling anytime soon.
For more on the Zags, head over to Slipper Still Fits.