ATLANTA - Casting a long national shadow, they have become the visitor targeted by every opponent in their league. When they lose on a foreign floor, a wild celebration ensues.
Michigan State? Sure, but the Gonzaga Bulldogs fill that description too. The Spartans, the defending NCAA champions, are in search of their third straight Final Four. The Bulldogs, their opponent tonight in the Sweet 16 at the Georgia Dome, reached a regional final two years ago, and the third round last season. Coach Mark Few blanches at the Cinderella label, in part because his Bulldogs are viewed as ogres in the West Coast Conference.
"Everywhere [Michigan State coach] Tom Izzo and his team go, the other team is really out to get them," Few said. "They get everyone's best effort, and everyone's loudest crowd. In our league, teams are jacked up to beat us. If a team beats us, their fans storm the floor. Attendance is up when we show up in our league, so I have great empathy for Tom Izzo and the Spartans."
Gonzaga, the 12th seed, got by Virginia in the first round and pummeled Indiana State in the second. The Bulldogs no longer have Matt Santangelo, their hero of the past two seasons, but the consensus is that Dan Dickau is a better backcourt player.
Santangelo and Dickau are among the players who challenge John Stockton, Gonzaga's most famous alumnus, in hot summer pick-up games. Occasionally, the spectators at practice include Jud Heathcote, who began his career at the high school level in Spokane, Wash., and made it his retirement home after he coached Magic Johnson and Michigan State to the 1979 NCAA title, and later anointed Izzo as his successor.
"He'll come by once in a while to practice," Dickau said of Heathcote. "I took an open three once, and he was yelling at me, just like a coach."
The biggest challenge for Gonzaga is slowing Jason Richardson, Michigan State's splendid sophomore swingman. The Bulldogs like to play man-to-man defense, and Few was unwilling to admit that he might go zone against the Spartans.
"If I tell you, I'll have to kill you," Few joked, when asked about his defensive scheme. "I think we will have to go with what we have done all year. We will play man defense, which we will hope will be five against one. We will swarm and help, we will block out as a team and we will rebound as a team. It will have to be a collective effort."
No Cinderella here
With a No. 7, an 11 and a 12 seed, the South Regional has one of the most unlikely collection of survivors ever to stand until the second weekend of the tournament. Penn State and Temple meet in a 7-11 game, and while Nittany Lion's Joe Crispin acknowledged "that everyone expects us to lose," Owls coach John Chaney joined Few in shaking off the Cinderella label.
"I don't think it's a mistake to call a team a Cinderella," said Chaney, who has criticized Dick Vitale and other commentators for giving the Atlantic 10 Conference the short shrift. "But when we are all members of the 325-team NCAA Division I, I think it is bad to separate teams according to `power' conferences and `elite' players. It really hurts the black schools, and the smaller schools," he said.
Penn State coach Jerry Dunn has an interesting view of his combative Crispin brothers, senior Joe and sophomore Jon.
"I have learned to be patient with them, since I have a twin brother and I know what a sibling rivalry can be," Dunn said.