#rushthetrip Day Nine: The Gonzaga Machine Keeps On RollingPosted by Bennet Hayes on February 16th, 2014
RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.
Gonzaga has long held a niche all their own in college basketball. Sure, other “mid-majors” have found national relevance since Casey Calvary, Richie Frahm and the Zags rose to prominence in the late 90’s, but none of those programs have been able to match Gonzaga when it comes to year-in, year-out consistency. The Bulldogs may still be seeking the Final Four run that would put an exclamation point on the era, but their run of WCC regular season dominance — titles in 12 of the last 13 seasons – demands respect, even if their recent Tournament struggles have many believing the Zags to be overvalued annually. That transformation from underrated to overrated is bound to happen when you make winning look as routine as Mark Few and the gang have over the years, especially when new seasons provide little in the way of statement opportunities. The arrival of the Pepperdine Waves on Thursday night was surely not one of those rare chances for a Zag proclamation, but I was just excited to get a look at The Kennel, no matter the opponent.
Admittedly, I have only watched 40 minutes of basketball in my entire life at the McCarthey Athletic Center, but it was easy to get the impression that the arena atmosphere is as consistent as the program it propels. The student section, cloaked in red, was full well before tipoff, and their energetic pregame rendition of “Zombie Nation” had me double-checking my program to make sure Pepperdine really had only won 14 games. The rest of the McCarthey Center was slightly more restrained than their younger cohorts, but not for any lack of caring. If you are not fortunate enough to be a Gonzaga season ticket-holder, you are likely not fortunate enough to attend a Gonzaga home game. As of 48 hours before tipoff, there were only two tickets available anywhere on the internet (and they predictably ran a pretty penny). There are more expensive, “exclusive” college basketball tickets out there, but almost never will you find a game with such a dearth of ticket listings. Even the biggest games at Cameron Indoor, Phog Allen Fieldhouse, or Rupp Arena will have more than two tickets available for those whom cost is no object. But up in Spokane, good luck to any outsider trying to find their way into the McCarthey Center, because it is very much a Zag-loving coterie that congregates at The Kennel some 15 times a year.
While it may seem odd that Gonzaga’s recently built (2004) home arena is only the 198th largest gymnasium in D-1, the smaller setup functions brilliantly. It’s obvious that the Zags could consistently fill a larger arena, but by minimizing ticket supply, Gonzaga has made attending games a true privilege. The scarcity only adds further allure to the program’s mystique, while the elimination of empty seats ensures a dynamite atmosphere for even the most pedestrian of opponents. Fans and recruits – whether in the seats or at home watching on TV – bear witness to a consistently raucous atmosphere, one that is at almost no risk of disappearing because of that underwhelming capacity. It’s surely the result of some unfair mental shortcut we all take as fans, but empty seats are pure toxic; fill a 20,000 seat arena with 15,000 fans and it just won’t feel as energized and supportive as when half that many people fill a 7,500 seat arena.
I don’t doubt that Gonzaga understood exactly what they were doing when they built their new hoops home. Something special was taking place in Spokane back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s; building a new facility as intimate as the McCarthey Athletics Center ensured the country would receive a steady glimpse of the magic. Thursday night was business as usual in Spokane, as 6,000 spirited fans packed the McCarthey Center to watch their Zags roll to an easy win over Pepperdine, their 22nd of the season. The atmosphere was phenomenal in every regard, but most refreshing was that Spokane showed none of the complacency that surrounds the national discussion of their team. Around the country, the 2013-14 Zags’ worth will be judged off of what they do in the Tournament, and only what they do in the Tournament. March obviously matters to Gonzaga fans, but as Thursday night showed, there are no meaningless nights — for both team and supporters — when it comes to the Zags.
Next stop: Logan, UT (Saturday)