Zags need to change conferences to prove their doubters wrong

Mar 23, 2013, 8:36 PM | Updated: 8:55 pm

Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk struggles to get a shot off against Wichita State defenders in the Zags’ 76-70 loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. (AP)

By Brent Stecker

They were called the best team in school history. They laid claim to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They were even the No. 1 team in the final polls.

But after Saturday’s soul-crushing 76-70 loss to No. 9 seed Wichita State, the Gonzaga Bulldogs were just another team that fell by the wayside on the road to crowning the 2013 national champion.

The Zags had their share of doubters heading into the Big Dance, and they proved them all right. They entered the tournament with a 15-game winning streak, but they left with a whimper after posting two lackluster performances (the first being a nail-biting 64-58 win over No. 16 Southern).

Gonzaga couldn’t match the toughness of Wichita State. It looked slow in the first half. Its defense was flat-out bad (the Shockers shot 50 percent from the floor and 53 percent from 3-point land). And worst of all, the Zags’ superstar players struggled.

So where do they go from here?

Gonzaga took the country by storm with its run to the Elite Eight in 1999, but it hasn’t been back there since. The level of play the Bulldogs see in the West Coast Conference can be blamed for that. The WCC provides the Zags with a weak league schedule, negating their usually fearsome non-conference schedule and leaving them ill-prepared heading into the tournament. Blowing out the likes of Portland State and San Francisco in February do them no good, and it showed this week.

If the Zags are ever going to take the step from being a perennially good team to a legitimate national title contender, they’ll have to do it as a member of another conference. Check with the Pac-12 — a full season butting heads with the likes of UCLA, Arizona and Oregon (not to mention renewing a bitter rivalry with the Huskies) would do wonders getting them ready for the tournament. If the Pac-12 isn’t willing to take on another member, the Mountain West Conference, a rising league that had five teams in the bracket this season, is the next logical landing spot.

A team as talented as this Gonzaga squad could have made a big run in the tournament if it had been forced to endure a schedule that made them battle tough teams night in and night out. Too bad we’ll never know what it was truly capable of.

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Zags need to change conferences to prove their doubters wrong