Each year when planning out the season preview coverage, I like to try and find all of the angles to talk about the team: That includes the one nobody ever wants to talk about with the Gonzaga Bulldogs. That angle is specifically, what happens if it all goes wrong?
Like the sub head says up there, you can blame my lifelong brutal existence as a Seattle Mariners fan on thinking like that. The Seattle Mariners currently own the longest postseason drought in professional American sports, and the state of the farm system and strength of the competition has it looking more than likely that unfortunate brown-bag-on-head trend continues.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs men’s basketball team is anything but that. They’ve been to the “playoffs” (so to speak) of college basketball every year since 1999. The program’s success as of late makes the stock market’s bull run look like play money.
But we don’t have to look back too far in Gonzaga’s history to remember how easily it can almost crumble. The Zags opened the 2015-16 season with a plethora of national articles talking about the three-headed beast, the somehow simultaneous starting of Przemek Karnowski, Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis.
That year, of course, Karnowski went down with a season-ending back injury. The backcourt as a whole was wildly inconsistent, which put Josh Perkins freshman year struggles under a brutal microscope. The Zags lost to BYU at home, Saint Mary’s twice, and entered the WCC Tournament, for the first time in anyone’s recent memory, as a full-fledged bubble team on the wrong side of the bubble. A resume featuring only a win over Connecticut will do that to you.
In the end, the Zags swept the conference tournament and almost plopped their way into the Elite Eight if not for a frustrating second-half collapse against the Syracuse Orange.
The 2015-16 season goes to show that at any time, it can all fall apart. Of course, injury is a constant threat in any sport, and it isn’t productive to even fathom the question of “What if Player A goes down this season?” No player on the current roster has a history of injuries that would cause worry, such as repeated foot issues. Although Perkins had offseason shoulder surgery, all reports are coming back with positive outlooks on his rehabilitation this summer.
So what can go wrong with this squad, honestly? It is hard to point to any one thing. The lineup is a perfect blend of wisdom and leadership (Josh Perkins) mixed with the reckless ambitions of the young sharpshooters (Zach Norvell). The addition of graduate transfer Geno Crandall really put to rest the one legitimate issue of guard depth. The schedule is primed to deliver the Zags quality tests against some of the best teams in the nation.
Perhaps the biggest risk lies in the title of this article. Gonzaga nation is just one full season removed from a national title appearance. The fandom is at a fever pitch calling for excellence, and as we all know, excellence in college basketball can be ever-so-cruelly snatched from the delightful taste of victory and replaced with the destructive stench of defeat during March Madness.
What can send this whole season sideways is our expectations that the 2016-17 season can happen all over again with the snap of a finger. I will be perfectly transparent here: I am having an impossible time not completely and overtly buying into the preseason hype. But the Zags have an absolutely brutal non-conference schedule. If the Zags face Duke in the Maui Invitational finals, they will play three (most likely) top-10 teams in less than a month, and that is not including a road contest against Creighton and a much better Washington Huskies squad rolling into Spokane. If I were smart, I’d mentally prepare myself for a few lumps here and there.
And that is where it gets tricky. I, like a lot of people, are chanting Final Four or bust, but saying that is a lot easier than making it happen. This is the life of a Gonzaga Bulldog squad. If the Zags have too many missteps in the non-conference slate, the WCC, as of now, doesn’t have the talent to buoy the seeding.
Before anyone starts to formulate the “seeding doesn’t matter” thread let me stop you right there. Since the tournament expanded to 16 seeds, top seeds account for 40.63 percent of the total Final Four appearances. No. 2 seeds account for 20.63 percent and No. 3 seeds for 11.25 percent. Combined, No. 4-16 seeds only account for 27.5 percent of total Final Four appearances. Odds are, the teams making the Final Four are going to be one of the top three seeds.
The Zags will begin the year with the highest preseason AP ranking in school history. That much is guaranteed. They will be a top-5 team at minimum, possibly top-3, most likely also receiving a few first-place votes. There has never been as much hype surrounding the squad as there is today. So that is what happen if it all goes wrong—we as a fanbase forget how to process anything short of perfection.