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The Iconic Zags -- Who Will Be This Year's Cinderalla Team?

 article about The Iconic Zags -- Who Will Be This Years Cinderalla Team?
If you've ever noticed that your palms get sweaty every year at about this time, there's a vague possibility that you are the dedicated fan of an NCAA Division I team that doesn't happen to be Duke, Kentucky, Kansas or Gonzaga, which, it is safe to say, was hardly a household name before the 1998-1999 season.

Gonzaga has made it into the big dance every year since it burst on the scene in that memorable season, when the Bulldogs won the West Coast Conference and were thrust into an unlikely slot as a 10 seed in their bracket. Although not high in the rankings that year, this put them right in the middle of all the fuss, and that's what the team preceded to do, raising a fuss that is now refereed to as the schoo'ls NCAA "coming out party."

The Zags beat seventh-seed Minnesota in the first round that year and went on to outmatch second seed Stanford in the next round. But that wasn't enough. The underdogs went on to beat Florida in a 73-72 nail biter, which put them in a match up against that year's tournament winner UConn, a mighty lineup they almost beat, trailing by one point with a minute left to play before the game slid out of reach.

The Zags are still icons of the unlikely run, symbolizing the wild-card entry that mows 'em down in the big dance beyond anyone's predictions. But look at them now. At 28-1, USA Today puts the Zags in the number two spot in the country, while the AP poll has them at No. 3, as the season winds down and the hoops fans begin to turn their attention on Selection Sunday with growing anticipation.

Before discussing a few of this year's potential Cinderellas, a word on the actual impact of the game that occupies so much of the nation's attention for three weeks every March. Is it really worth so much time, money, and sore throats?

The answer is yes. Sure, there are bragging rights, but Gonzaga is a small enough school to take a look at finite enrollment numbers and see what happens when a sports team does well.

In 1999, right after the memorable Zag run, freshman enrollment jumped from 569 to 701.

That's what happens when a team from out of nowhere (from out of Spokane, Wash., actually) makes it to the Elite Eight.

In the ensuing years, with the Zags Five continuing to make headlines, enrollment jumped to 786 by the year 2000 and to 979 in 2001. In addition, with Zag sports seen as a terrific success story, the school raised $23 million to build the state-of-the-art McCarthey Athletic Center. Not bad for a school with only 7,60 students. (By comparison, the University of Michigan has 43,000 plus students. The University of Kentucky has a about 29,000 students. Duke enrollment is about 14,600.)

For bubble teams, almost any team with a record there are some casual, very unwritten guidelines. Of course, teams with won-loss records close to 500 percent rarely make the grade. Secondly, the magic number of 20 wins is generally (not always) a clue that your team is in the dance.

Just by the numbers, AP poll lists the top 25 teams. Meanwhile, Georgetown, Michigan State, Murray State, Oklahoma State, Ohio State, Valparaiso, Texas A&M, Rhode Island, Stephen F. Austin, Texas and Oregon also received votes with three weeks of the season remaining.

In total, that's 36 teams receiving votes.

Now consider the USA Today poll and you find Purdue, Boise State, Colorado State, Ole Miss, Purdue received votes.

In total, between the two polls, 41 teams received votes, leaving 23 slots unaccounted for, provided all 41 teams make it into the tournament.

Remember, win-loss records are only part of the formula for making it to the big dance. Conference champions receive bids, so there could be a surprise or two making the tournament on statutory reasons.

How does this stack up conference to conference? As you can see by this year's official NCAA rankings, there are a number of solid records in the books, but the Selection Committee reserves the right to weed out teams with good records notched against low-ranking teams.

So, using the not-very-scientific method of looking for teams with 20 wins, Albany in the America East Conference has a 19=8 overall record with a 13-1 record in their division. Stony Brook, ranked third in their conference, also has 19 wins, but only a 10-4 conference record.

Cincinnati has 18 wins with 9 losses. Rhode Island is 19-6 and 11-3 against Atlantic 10 rivals. Syracuse and Pittsburgh in the ACC have 18 and 19 wins, respectively, but poor conference records.

Dayton in the Atlantic 10 has 20 wins, six losses, 3 against conference rivals, although the team has not broken into the top 25. South Carolina Upstate has also notched 20 victories, but has nine losses and a 7-5 conference record.

St. Johns from New York City, has 19 wins, but an 8-7 record in the Big East. High Point and Costal Carolina have 21 wins apiece and Radford has 20, giving the Big South Conference big numbers, but their opponents may not have been strong enough to put some muscle behind the statistics.

For my money, Northeastern is in with some season left and a 19-10 overall record in the Colonial Athletic Association Conference. Louisiana Tech, maybe, at 21-7 with a 12-3 record in Conference USA.


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