The 2017 season was the best ever for the Gonzaga Bulldogs. For the first time in school history, the Zags made the Final Four. Then they went even further along and made it to the national championship, where they eventually fell to North Carolina.
The Bulldogs were supposed to one of the best in the country, but the offseason hinged on the NBA Draft. In the end, Nigel Williams-Goss decided to leave a year early, joining the much more expected Zach Collins in the draft.
The Bulldogs, despite losing so much, entered the 2017-18 season ranked No. 18, based on the strength of the returning squad. New faces we have all waited for finally hit the floor, such as Zach Norvell.
There were a lot of things that happened in 2017. Let’s try and shine some light on the not-as-obvious moments that still shaped the news.
Let’s face it, Gonzaga would have hit No. 1 eventually even if this night never happened. The Zags sat at No. 3 in the nation, and then Villanova lost to Marquette, Kansas lost to West Virginia, and Kentucky lost to Tennessee: the road to the top opened up right in front the Zags’ eyes.
Now, in the grand scheme of things, being No. 1 is rather inconsequential. But in a year where the Zags were doing so good, yet somehow still had something to prove to a large portion of the college basketball audience, they deserved to be No. 1.
No one thought it could be this good. No one really saw any of this coming. The Zags were 29-0—one game from running the entire regular season. And then, BYU stepped into Spokane like the friend from home you aren’t really friends with anymore showing up unannounced on your doorstep, entering your home, consuming all of your adult beverages, throwing up in your hallway, then soiling your couch as he nods off into oblivion.
The perfect season would have been so much fun. But it also would have been an immense amount of added pressure. Either way, it was one of the few negative marks on the 2016-17 season of virtually pure bliss.
The Zags spent the entire season ranked by Ken Pomeroy as the No. 1 team in the nation. The Zags owned one loss and a whole pile of great wins. Yet, there was still a question if the NCAA would award Gonzaga with its second No. 1 seed in school history simply because, well, Gonzaga. The selection committee made the right decision.
If the Zags were the feel good story of the season, Northwestern was the feel the bestest in the whole planet story of the season. Northwestern was in their first NCAA Tournament in school history, one of the longest streaks of depression in college basketball finally broken. And they gave Gonzaga hell in their second round matchup.
Zach Collins, a secret in Spokane as one of the best freshmen in the nation, established himself in front of the entire nation. He will long be remembered in this game for the “goaltending heard round the world,” but it was his other three blocks, alongside his 12 points, that really powered Gonzaga to the Sweet 16.
Now, this seems a bit odd to pick out, but it is important. When the Zags hit the national championship game, there was a lot of talk about how easy the road was. It was not Gonzaga’s fault that South Carolina and Xavier “over performed.” With that said, you have to wonder if the Zags even would have played in the title game if they were matching up against Villanova. Although Gonzaga was the No. 1 team in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy, Villanova was No. 2, and they were the defending national champions. Out of any team in the NCAA Tournament, they were the one who could’ve changed the storyline.
The Zags faced off in the Sweet 16 against a vastly underrated No. 5 seeded West Virginia. Press Virginia was one of the premier defenses in the nation, and one that potentially could actually stop Gonzaga. They did, for the better part of the game. The final score, 61-58, was never going to be one for the ages, but it was one of the better games in the NCAA Tournament—largely thanks to the heroics of Jordan Mathews in one of the craziest sequences possible.
This was the big question heading into the offseason. The hype for Zach Collins built for quite some time, so it was not nearly as much of a surprise when he declared for the NBA Draft. But with NWG, it was a bit different. He wasn’t being lobbed into the potential lottery realm like Collins was by every single NBA Draft mock board. Some boards didn’t even have NWG hearing his name called. If he comes back for his senior season, he cements his position as one of the best Gonzaga guards ever, in a mere two years. Instead, NWG reached his own personal peak, and said good-bye a year early.
Most of the hype swirling this team entering the season stemmed from this U-19 World Cup. The Zags lost such a huge amount of production, people were starting to call it a rebuild year vs. a reload year. Tillie and Hachimura proved everyone wrong, with Rui especially displaying his potential for dominance. A lot of the talk swirled around the play and potential of Johnathan Williams III, but Tillie and Hachimura hype were just as crucial.
Pretty much every national media member out there hopped on the Saint Mary’s hype train before it even pulled into the station. The Zags lost everything, and this is finally the time that Saint Mary’s does something—despite returning the exact same team that Gonzaga rolled over three times the previous season. The rest of the West Coast Conference coaches, ready to hop in on that sweet sweet action, all picked Saint Mary’s as the top squad in the WCC. The Thanksgiving holiday weekend changed that narrative immediately.
The Zags played in the most premier non-conference college basketball tournaments every assembled, and they played in one of the best games of the year so far, eventually falling to Florida in double-overtime. The Zags followed that up with another overtime thriller against Texas. There was a question about the potential of this Gonzaga team, and it was firmly on display in this tournament. Not only that, it provided the quality wins, in the chance that this squad falls to Saint Mary’s for the automatic bid.
This might be a bit of a reach for its importance as the season goes on, but it is rare that Mark Few pulls a move like this—especially with a senior player. After distinctly poor performances against North Dakota, a game that almost ended up as the one of worst losses in home history, Coach Few sent a message and removed both Tillie and Williams out of the starting lineup against IUPUI. Sure, if it was Creighton instead of IUPUI, we might not have seen this move. But the message was loud, clear, and showed that Few is not messing around this season.
2017 was a year to remember. 2018 has the opportunity to be its own special little beast. I, for one, cannot wait.