INDIANAPOLIS — The best college basketball story of this generation is unfolding in front of us. For a glorious week, America will be captivated by one of the sport’s all-time storylines.
As we await this most tantalizing of Final Fours, one question will dominate: Can Gonzaga capture college basketball immortality and become the first team to go through the entire regular season and men’s tournament undefeated since Indiana in 1975-76?
Can Gonzaga do it? Can they navigate two more games and live on in perpetuity? Can coach Mark Few’s name be etched with Bobby Knight’s? Can Drew Timme, Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert be remembered alongside Scott May, Quinn Buckner and Kent Benson?
Is this the best team of your lifetime? Your parents’ lifetime? What about your grandparents’ lifetime? Is a Gonzaga team that romped through the WCC better than some of the elite college teams we’ve seen in recent seasons that needed to navigate the ACC (1982 UNC), SEC (1996 Kentucky) or Big East (2018 Villanova)?
There’d be endless water cooler conversations, if the notion of gathering at one didn’t break CDC guidelines. The No. 1 Zags play No. 11 UCLA on Saturday, as they attempt to take their next step to history.
"These steps get harder and harder, and the next one's going to be really hard," Few said. "...It's going to make for just an amazing Final Four."
In the 30th installment of their quest for perfection, Gonzaga didn’t flinch at the bigger stage or the alleged first opponent in the NCAA men's tournament that could finally test them. That notion got tossed aside as No. 1 Gonzaga thumped No. 6 USC, 85-66, and beat a team by double-digits for the 29th time. Gonzaga’s ascendency has proven indistinguishable if the opponent is Iowa or Portland, Virginia or Pacific. Take a bow, West Virginia, you are the lone team that’s come close, losing 87-82 on Dec. 2.
These Zags have redefined modern college basketball dominance. They improved to 30-0 by cold-cocking USC with transition brilliance, balletic ball movement and a low-post punking that Timme, a 6-foot-10 sophomore, (23 points) put on USC 7-footer Evan Mobley — making everyone question who was actually the projected top-three pick.
Gonzaga reminded us that it's a basketball blitzkrieg, a symphonic ideal, a merciless medley of rugged veterans, youthful verve and the kind of casual cocksure that comes with knowing how much better you are than the competition. “Obviously just a joy to coach and a joy to watch,” Few said after the game, as the Zags clinched the second Final Four in program history.
Gonzaga is antithetical to the way modern basketball teams are constructed, as it has thrived, in part, because it's the best two-point shooting team in the history of the sport. Gonzaga entered the night at just under 64% and that number went down by hitting 26-of-45 from two-point range.
Think about this for a second: Gonzaga won an Elite Eight NCAA tournament game by 19 points shooting 50%, and it was the fourth-worst shooting performance it had all season.
This game offered all the glimpses of vintage Gonzaga. Suggs threw one-handed bounce passes through double teams to rekindle memories of a young Jason Kidd. He finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
Timme played angry against Mobley, scoring 23 points, including 10 two-point field goals against the country’s top two-point field goal defense. Once Gonzaga’s offense got humming, the Mobley brothers turned from twin towers of intimidation to low-post turnstiles for Timme to run through. Kispert finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and proved his usual multi-dimensional menace.
"Probably our greatest attribute is our balance," Few said. "We have several guys or even more than several that can get 20 in an evening."
There are just seven undefeated national champions in the history of the sport. The fact we’ve waited more than 40 years for an eighth is a confluence of talent spreading through the sport, the frenetic nature of the NCAA men's tournament and a transient era of the sport where staying in college too long is a sign of talent inferiority.
The Zags showed they can guard, too, with early turnovers leading to a 7-0 open to the game. USC called timeout and never really recovered.
Other than Indiana’s 1976 championship team, there are six other undefeated national champions in men’s tournament history. There are four UCLA teams (1973, 1972, 1967, 1964), the 1957 North Carolina team and 1956 San Francisco. A few name-checks of those squads deliver snapshots of generational dominance — Bill Russell at USF, Lew Alcindor at UCLA and later Bill Walton at UCLA.
Can Gonzaga join them? The tension that’s defined this college basketball season will now echo through the entire sports world, super-charging the Final Four, the sport and giving the Zags a chance to catch Indiana about 50 miles from IU’s campus in Bloomington. (One of the interesting points a college official pointed out Tuesday is that while they’ll be heavily covered, the players will generally get to avoid the in-person media crush that comes with a run like this. They won’t avoid the undefeated talk, but they also won’t be subject to all the typical media availabilities that come with a run like this. That could help alleviate pressure.)
A small Catholic school in Eastern Washington is on the cusp of a forever niche in college basketball lore. The players have the swagger, the take-your-breath-away style and still carry remnants of underdog appeal because of their name, location and humble roots. "Everyone wants us to keep moving forward, but that's not how we roll," Few said. "This is a heck of an accomplishment. We're going to take it and savor it for what it is."
Gonzaga will be toasted all week. The Zags are one of the best stories in all of sports and one of the best college basketball has seen in years. Next weekend, we’ll find out if they can complete this once-in-four-decades quest and become America’s team.
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