Be the winning team on April 8, 2019. That’s the aspiration for every single NCAA Division I basketball program going into the season. There are only a handful of teams, however, that actually have the ability to get it done. Gonzaga is one of them.
On Thursday, Peter took a look at how things could go wrong (because he’s a Mariners fan) for the Zags this year. Because of the nature of sport, it’s far more likely that things will go wrong as opposed to everything working out right. But what if they did? What if Gonzaga’s season ended in the best possible way? What does that look like, you may ask?
The ceiling (is the roof—couldn’t help myself) for this Gonzaga team is a national championship. Full stop. The talent and experience are there, and this coaching staff obviously knows how to navigate a team to the last game of the season. If not for Kennedy Meeks (who is incidentally still out of bounds), Gonzaga could already have a national championship banner hanging in The Kennel.
It doesn’t require too much imagination to see how the Zags could be cutting down the nets in Minneapolis. The non-conference schedule will thoroughly test this team, and with true road games at Creighton and North Carolina, along with neutral site tests against Tennessee and the Maui Invitational field, I would be very surprised if Gonzaga made it through November and December unscathed.
Even with a loss or two, however, that stretch of competition will be far more beneficial than harmful to the Zags. The players will be tested and get actual feedback on what needs to be shored up before the calendar flips to March. If they run the table through the non-conference schedule, expect to see a #1 ranking next to Gonzaga’s name by the team conference play starts.
The WCC should be a little better overall this season, with Ken Pomeroy’s preseason ranking placing the conference at 9th (last year the WCC finished at 12th). But, Saint Mary’s and BYU do not appear to be as strong as they’ve been in recent years, and Gonzaga should face little resistance en route to sweeping the WCC’s regular season and conference tournament titles.
Barring some really ugly losses, a top-3 seed in the NCAA Tournament seems pretty realistic considering that Gonzaga will likely start the season ranked in the Top-5, with plenty of opportunities to boost its tournament resume. With the hype already surrounding this team, a Final Four appearance is the expectation (which is wild, if you think about it). But in the craziness of the NCAA Tournament, talent needs to be paired with some luck to get to the final weekend. There have been some very talented teams that just didn’t have “it” on one particular day during the tournament, or had some calls and bounces go the other way.
Think back to Gonzaga’s 2017 NCAA Tournament. That team entered the Tournament with a single loss, but looked sluggish out of the gates against South Dakota St. Zach Collins’ “block” and Chris Collins subsequent technical slowed down a Northwestern comeback (Zags still would have won) that earned the Zags a Sweet 16 berth, and saw Zach Collins permanently take up residence in the psyche of Northwestern basketball fans. The Zags wrecked Xavier in the Elite 8, but wouldn’t have been there if Jordan Mathews didn’t sink a clutch three in the Sweet 16. What happens if Killian Tillie doesn’t sink those late free throws against South Carolina in the Final Four?
That’s all to say that a lot of things have to go right to win a national championship. But to even be in the championship conversation, there is a baseline level of ability that has to be present. Gonzaga has the talent—4 players are on the watch list for an end of season award at their respective positions—along with the balance and versatility on both ends of the floor to play with any team in the country. Mark Few’s program has been knocking on the door for a long time. This could finally be the year they break through.