Gonzaga has twice been the NCAA Tournament runner-up in the last five years, so what’s next?
Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.
We all know someone who fits this moniker. Someone who’s great in several respects, but has never quite taken one particular step.
Such is Gonzaga basketball in a nutshell. So many strong teams, very few deep NCAA Tournament runs. In fact, 2017 marked the program’s first-ever trip to the Final Four, and eventually the championship game where they lost to North Carolina.
Instead of championship glory, we have Adam Morrison collapsing in defeat after a stunning Sweet Sixteen loss to UCLA in 2006. Kelly Olynyk led the Zags to a No. 1 seed in 2013, but no signature wins all year meant running head-first into a feisty Wichita State team in the Round of 32.
Since then, however, coach Mark Few has upped his efforts. Gonzaga is no longer the midmajor darling of the small, regional West Coast Conference (WCC). The program has officially entered powerhouse territory, regularly dominating the top of the rankings throughout the season.
Last year’s Jalen Suggs-led team seemed primed for it all, especially after stunning UCLA in a Final Four overtime thriller. Scott Drew’s Baylor Bears had other ideas and physically outmatched Gonzaga. NCAA Tournament Final 2, Gonzaga Bulldogs 0.
But we all know that in life, things happen in threes. If that’s any indication, 2022 could finally mean Gonzaga’s One Shining Moment.
Gonzaga isn’t just any mid-major
Gonzaga may still play in the friendly confines of the WCC, but aren’t mere beneficiaries of friendly competition. Remember, St. Mary’s also plays in the WCC and is a No. 5 seed this year.
With Gonzaga’s higher national profile also come exhibition games against tough non-conference opponents. That means more signature wins, and Gonzaga got plenty this season. The team won games against Texas, Texas Tech, and (again) UCLA.
Put it all together, and the Bulldogs went 26-3 (13-1 WCC) on the year. Two losses were exhibition matchups against Duke and Alabama, and the sole conference loss was on the road against St. Mary’s.
None of these losses are particularly bad. Duke put together another great campaign in Mike Krzyzewski’s final season. Alabama might not be known for basketball, but Nate Oats’ coaching is making people pay attention.
Oh, and about that St. Mary’s loss? Gonzaga beat them in the WCC Tournament Final. Thus, does it matter?
This year is the year
Sure enough, Gonzaga drew the No. 1 seed in the West region and will face the No. 16 Georgia State Panthers of the Sun Belt. This will not be a Virginia-UMBC repeat. Gonzaga is so close to cutting down that net that losing out this year would take a collapse of epic proportions.
It helps that junior Drew Timme is back for another run at the trophy and turned in 17.5 points per game this season. He has an NBA body at 6’10”, 235 pounds. Now, pair that with freshman seven-footer Chet Holmgren and his ability to play inside as well as stretch the floor.
Then, add a remarkably effective trio of guards to supplement them. This is the team who will dominate Georgia State, who went on something of a Cinderella run to win the Sun Belt and otherwise aren’t an effective group.
Gonzaga, on the other hand, ranked second in the nation in scoring (87.8 PPG), 12th in rebounding, fifth in assists per game, and allowed only 65.3 points per game.
March Madness is indeed a cruel time of year where anything can happen, even to Gonzaga.
This does not seem like one of those years. Gonzaga is once again a No. 1 seed even after losing Suggs and Corey Kispert to the NBA after last season. This year’s Bulldogs team is primed and ready to finish what was started in 2021. Chet Holmgren being a potential No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft is just an added bonus.
All this to say that if this isn’t Gonzaga’s year, then when will it be?