Analysis: Gonzaga's case for being one of the best non-champions in men's Division I history
Gonzaga entered Monday night's national championship game against Baylor looking to become the first team in more than 45 years to go unbeaten. Instead, the Bears' 86-70 victory prevents the Bulldogs from securing a place in college basketball history.
"I never felt like we played with that weight all year," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "I always felt like we were the aggressor. We just ran into a team tonight where they were the aggressor, clearly. That put us back on our heels on both ends."
This coronavirus-influenced season did not include the long-awaited breakthrough at the end of the Bulldogs' surge to national prominence under Few, who has overseen the program's metamorphosis from obscure Cinderella to powerhouse.
While missing the finishing touch on the national championship, Gonzaga should still be celebrated as one of the best teams in men's NCAA Tournament history to not win it all, even if that's a compliment the Bulldogs would care to avoid.
For several reasons, Gonzaga easily ranks among the best non-champions. Here's how the Bulldogs' résumé stacks up:
Gonzaga almost went unbeaten
A few teams came close — 1991 UNLV and 2015 Kentucky lost in the Final Four — but not since Larry Bird-led Indiana State in 1979 had a team entered the championship game unbeaten since Indiana completed the last perfect season in 1976. For another year, the list of programs to go undefeated during the tournament era remains the Hoosiers, UCLA (four times), North Carolina and San Francisco. Perfection is so rare in sports, especially in men's basketball, that an unblemished record assures a team will forever be mentioned in the same breath as the greatest in the history of the sport.
And nearly did so during the modern tournament era
Here's why decades have passed without a team matching Indiana's achievement: Because it's hard! And it's even harder during the modern era of the men's tournament, which expanded to 64 teams in 1985 and grew to 68 teams in 2011. The Hoosiers' title came against a 32-team bracket. UCLA's back-to-back unbeaten campaigns in 1971-72 and 1972-73 came as part of a 25-team field. Perfect seasons from the Bruins in 1964 and 1966-67, the Tar Heels in 1956-57 and San Francisco in 1955-56 came with anywhere from 22 to 25 teams in the bracket.
Not to mention while playing through COVID-19
Instead of being used to question Gonzaga's place in the championship game, that this team nearly ran the table amid the COVID-19 pandemic only strengthens the Bulldogs' credentials. Some of the biggest, most foolproof programs in the sport were derailed by the coronavirus, most notably Duke and Kentucky. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs weaved through a midseason pause to team activities and didn't skip a beat.
The roster is loaded with NBA talent
The Bulldogs have never been short on talent. This year's team is simply the most talented of Few's tenure, led by the possible top overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft in freshman star Jalen Suggs and another potential lottery pick in sharpshooting senior Corey Kispert. In fact, the entire starting five is destined for the NBA, with forward Drew Timme and guards Joel Ayayi and Andrew Nembhard firmly on draft radars. Based on this collection of established talent and the underclassmen on the Bulldogs' roster capable of blossoming in larger roles, this Gonzaga roster may look even stronger in the years to come; eventually, the amount of players on NBA rosters will lend further support to the Bulldogs' case for a place in history.
Gonzaga's been consistently good for 20-plus years
This year hasn't been a one-off, in other words. Gonzaga has reached the NCAA Tournament in every eligible season since 1999, predating Few's tenure by one year, and advanced at least to the Sweet 16 in each of the past six trips. The 2016-17 team went 37-2 and reached the championship game before losing 71-65 to North Carolina. Last year's team was expected to be one of the top overall seeds and contend for the title before the tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus. There's nothing surprising about this year's run at perfection — Gonzaga's been knocking on the door of this moment for decades.
Nothing cheap about 31-1
It's extremely rare for the championship game to feature the top two teams in the preseason Ferris Mowers Coaches Poll. It's also rare for the game to feature two teams so clearly ahead of the field: Gonzaga and Baylor entered Monday with a combined two losses, tied for the fewest of any championship-game matchup. The Bulldogs might've been picked clean by the Bears, but one game doesn't tell the story of a season's worth of dominance. All but one of Gonzaga's wins came by a double-digit margin.
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg