On the day after a game, this space is typically used to rehash moments from the previous night’s competition that stood out to me. I’m pretty sure, however, that most of you don’t want to revisit the good and bad from Gonzaga’s elimination in the Elite 8. I’m even more sure that I don’t want to write about it.
Instead, let’s talk about this team and this season. But first, I would be remiss not to tip my hat to Chris Beard and his Texas Tech team for playing a phenomenal game. At this stage, it takes a special team to beat a special team. On Saturday night, Texas Tech simply executed better and earned its place in the Final Four. Now, on to happier things:
- This group has demonstrated time and time again that when they use the word “family” to describe the relationships within the team and program, it isn’t just lip service. Watch how they supported one another in their devastation after Saturday night’s loss. Those guys are deeply invested in one another, and not just from a basketball standpoint.
- It says a lot about the state of the program that a Sweet 16 appearance has essentially become the baseline expectation. This team got to the second weekend with ease, and was just a few plays away from a second Final Four appearance in three years.
- This wasn’t the individual season that Killian Tillie envisioned at the start of fall practice. For a guy who expected to have his star turn, I have immense respect for Tillie who never once grumbled about his reduced role after his return from injuries, or pitied himself for the terrible luck he endured this year. So many athletes in similar circumstances have failed to carry themselves with that level of maturity.
- It’s very bittersweet that Geno Crandall and (almost certainly) Brandon Clarke only had one season in a Gonzaga uniform. I am always amazed with how seamlessly—at least from my perspective—transfers are able to integrate into the fabric of the program. By the end of the season it felt like they had been Zags for their entire careers. Clarke frequently mentioned throughout the year that this season was the most fun he’d ever had playing basketball. You love to hear that from guys who come to Gonzaga from other schools, and I’m glad their abbreviated time with the program still left an indelible impression on them.
- Don’t forget that Crandall had to learn new teammates and new offensive/defensive schemes on the fly after arriving on campus in October. He was only with the team for 5 months, but he still became one of Gonzaga’s leaders. He went from being “the guy” at North Dakota where he played 33+ mpg to accepting a smaller and specific role with Gonzaga where his shot usage and minutes were essentially cut in half. Despite just missing out on an opportunity to play in a Final Four in his hometown, Crandall was the one consoling a devastated Zach Norvell after the game. He’s another example of the selflessness that is the hallmark of this group.
- For his part, Brandon Clarke gave us one of the most spectacular individual seasons in program history. Think about the number of jaw dropping plays he delivered at both the offensive and defensive ends. He is quite literally a walking, running, jumping highlight reel. His block of Yves Pons in the Tennessee game still makes me cackle, and his performance against Baylor in the second round of the tournament is one of the greatest collegiate basketball performances I’ve ever seen. Selfishly, I would love for him to return for one more season (he needs to work on throwing lob passes!!). But, he has earned himself a spot in the Top 15 of the NBA Draft, and it would be almost irresponsible for him not to go.
- Shout out to Jeremy Jones for quietly putting in the hard work over the last three years to become a key role player this season. He was the team’s unsung hero during the Maui Invitational, and is one of the all time players who don’t need a play called for them because he’s so good at making put-backs around the rim. Also, salute to Jack Beach for bringing the heat during pre-game handshakes all season long. He is elite.
- Rui’s game has come a long way during his three years with the program, but it’s the growth of his confidence and mentality that allowed him to become the headliner of this team. The coaching staff worked tirelessly on getting Rui to believe in his own talent, and now he’s on the verge of becoming a lottery pick. While he’s certainly a tremendous basketball talent who is still only scratching the surface of his abilities, what I enjoyed most about watching Rui over the last three seasons was his ever-present positive energy despite the constant demands and burdens on his shoulders to not only be one of Gonzaga’s key pieces, but also an entire nation’s biggest basketball star. Mark Few had this to say about Rui at the start of the season: “He’s got a great personality. He has such a positive aura. You enjoy being around him, you enjoy him being around your kids and your team.”
- It is going to be very strange to watch Gonzaga next year and not see Josh Perkins at the point and orchestrating the offense. His five years at Gonzaga coincide with the program’s best 5-year stretch, and he was the guy at the helm for most of that time. Sure, he had some head shaking moments on the floor from time to time, but it also felt like his game was massively under-appreciated by some. Consider that he was a 4-year starter on a team that went to two Sweet 16’s, an Elite 8, and a National Championship game during his run. That is a remarkable college career. But the greatest star on his resume is probably how many of his various teammates during that period all love him and recognize him as one of the greatest leaders they’ve ever played with.
- This group was certainly good enough to win a national championship, and the end of this season will sting for a long time because of that. Every opportunity to win a championship is sacred, and you can never assume that the chance to do so will come again. However, in this writer’s opinion, the future for Gonzaga is blindingly bright.