The Gonzaga Bulldogs opened the season as the No. 14 team according to the AP voters. For much of the fan base, that seemed like the right number—good, but not too good.
There was reason to be tempered about this squad. Teams don’t lose players of the caliber of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis and just bounce back. Teams also don’t come into the season with so many new faces expected to play key roles throughout the season. Everyone knew the Zags had the potential to be good, but as the 2015-16 season showed, sometimes potential doesn’t always flesh out the way it is supposed to.
At the beginning of the season, if you would’ve told me that I would be sitting in Phoenix, Arizona, on April 4, 2017, just having witnessed the Gonzaga Bulldogs play in the NCAA championship game, I would’ve told you to shelve those delusions. It would be one year soon, but not this year, there were too many question marks.
But these Gonzaga Bulldogs did not care, and they gelled together better than anyone could ever have expected. They rattled off a win streak so long it had people talking about an undefeated season. They reached No. 1 in the AP poll and secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history.
Nigel Williams-Goss was a second-team All-American. Mark Few was named coach of the year by multiple outlets. Przemek Karnowski overcame that scary back injury last season to become the all-time winningest player in college basketball history. Zach Collins made the case on the national stage to have the potential to be the first one and done in school history. After a year where seemingly nothing went right (although that Sweet 16 run was nice and surprising), everything (or at least almost everything) fell into place.
And with it, the Gonzaga Bulldogs faced all the haters, all the senseless criticism, anything and everything that got thrown their way about how they don’t belong on the national stage, and they told the world to stuff it.
This whole crazy trip started way back in 1999 as some sort of deranged pipe-dream, that a tiny Jesuit institution out in little ‘ol Spokane actually belonged with the big boys, playing the Dukes, the Kentuckys, the Michigan States, and the North Carolinas of the world.
The year is 2017, and the Gonzaga Bulldogs sniffed the peak of the world, and you better believe that it is just all beginning. Gonzaga is now landing five-star recruits. Gonzaga is now a consistent top-10 threat, a consistent Elite Eight threat, and a consistent threat to every major opponent they face.
Next season, the Bulldogs will partake in the PK80 Invitational, the biggest non-conference tournament in the history of non-conference tournaments. They will return a majority of the squad to continue the run that began nearly two decades ago.
Sadly, the Bulldogs will also say good bye to some of the more memorable players in school history, a history that is chalk full of memorable players. Karnowski, a player all of us watched develop from a good freshman into one of the best big men the team has ever seen, will finally graduate. Rem Bakamus, the life and blood of the sideline and the man who made bench celebrations hot before Monmouth even knew basketball existed, will graduate as well. Jordan Mathews, the man who took and made one of the biggest shots in school history against West Virginia, will finish his collegiate career as a Zag.
In college basketball, the pages just keep on turning. The 2016-17 Gonzaga basketball season was the beginning of a new chapter in this program. We looked at 1999 when it all started. We looked at 2013 when we started to belong, but the 2017 NCAA Tournament is the year Gonzaga finally shed the slipper and replaced it with a steel-toed boot.
I’m getting on a plane tonight to go back home after having one of the more enjoyable weekends of my life. To all the Gonzaga players and coaches, my fellow writers at the site, and all of you community members who make this the best damn place to talk about Gonzaga, I want to say thanks. This season was one I will never forget.