The brutal reality of American sports is that the regular season, generally speaking, doesn’t mean anything.
Sure, it is impressive that the Zags became the first team to run the table in the regular season and conference tournament since the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats, but ask those Wildcats about their place in history. They are currently fondly remembered as one of the most dominant college basketball squads in recent memory, but they will never be a Jeopardy answer thanks to Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin.
I point you to the 2001 Seattle Mariners. What does the hapless franchise masquerading as a baseball team have to do with college basketball, you might ask? Just that 2001 season, in which the Mariners tied the record for most wins in a season (116) in MLB history, and despite being the overwhelmingly best team throughout the entire season, fell in the playoffs. Now, they are merely a footnote in the annals of baseball history.
The American playoffs structure does that because playoffs oftentimes do not reward the actual best team throughout the entire year. That is why the pressure is on for the Zags. If they win it all, they become a piece of storied history, becoming the first team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to go undefeated, and the first team to do it in the modern era of the expanded bracket. If at any point they lose, they become yet another 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats.
It sounds harsh, but that is the byproduct of success and expectations. It all started in 1999, continued in 2013, took a huge step forward in 2017, and landed to where we are now—in the middle of the weirdest timeline, praying to every thing we can pray to, hoping we don’t hear the dreaded whisper of COVID-19.
Eight years ago today. Gonzaga received the first No. 1 seed in school history. Since then, national championship appearance, two Elite 8s and two Sweet 16 finishes. And three more No. 1 seeds (possibly four if last year happened). What a freaking run. pic.twitter.com/DmGZBam57K— Slipper Still Fits (@slipperstillfit) March 17, 2021
Four years ago, I sat in the massive confines of the University of Phoenix Stadium for the absurd exercise of watching basketball played in a football arena. At the time, I hadn’t quite come to grips with the fact I was actually watching Gonzaga play in the Final Four. Four years ago, if you told me Gonzaga would be on the run of success it is now, I’d roll my eyes. One year at a time.
- 2017: National Championship
- 2018: Sweet 16
- 2019: No. 1 seed and Elite Eight
- 2020: Theoretical No. 1 seed
- 2021: No. 1 overall seed
And yet, here we stand, with an accelerated pace of success few people in the nation honestly could have predicted. College basketball is ripe for ebbs and flows throughout programs, ups and downs. Players come play, graduate, or leave for the NBA. To achieve the highest levels of success, it requires just as much to go right as it does to avoid everything going wrong.
Jalen Suggs could have decided to attend another school or go to the G League. The Zags wouldn’t be here. Corey Kispert could have decided to jump ship and join the NBA last season. The Zags wouldn’t be here. Andrew Nembhard could have been denied his waiver to play this season. The Zags wouldn’t be here. Any player could have been sidelined for multiple games with a significant injury. The Zags wouldn’t be here.
That isn’t even counting the tournament, where a group of people in a closed room can make or break your path to the Final Four and beyond. We might be a bit bummed out that the Zags No. 2-4 seeds in their region are all teams Gonzaga has defeated this season. Do you think Baylor is excited by the idea of facing a No. 9 seed (and No. 10 KenPom ranked) Wisconsin Badgers squad in the second round? Or Illinois, potential drawing the ludicrously underseeded Loyola Chicago Sister Jeans in the second round?
I’m not saying the Zags got lucky here. The path to the NCAA Championship is still a grueling six wins, regardless of who you face, because the teams in this tournament are not in here by accident. Luck isn’t the right word for it. It is more that the stars have to align for it to all work out. A little luck in your favor just makes it a bit easier.
I think about this game a lot. In 2017, the No. 4 seeded West Virginia Mountaineers were the Zags’ Sweet 16 opponent, even though all of the metrics suggested the Mountaineers should more have been the Zags’ Elite Eight or Final Four opponent. West Virginia was ranked No. 5 by KenPom. The Zags were one Jordan Mathews’ missed three-pointer away from losing. Years down the road, the history would not reflect that West Virginia was a much better school than its seeding suggested. The story would merely be that No. 1 Gonzaga was upset by a No. 4 team.
That is what makes sports such a rough exercise. Greatness is solely defined by one win or one loss. Since the Zags started the NCAA Tournament run in 1999, only 12 different schools have won the national championship. There are 357 Division I basketball schools, and although probably 300 of those have no business actually winning a national championship, the quest is not easy. It is one of the hardest undertakings in sports.
These Zags are special. You don’t need me to tell you that. The Zags opened the season as the preseason No. 1 ranked team. They spent every week in that slot, by a significant margin of votes as the year progressed. They won every game by double-digits except for one. They looked their most vulnerable once all season, against BYU in the WCC Tournament, and still came out with a box score suggesting a comfortable win.
When the dust settles, cutting down the nets or heading home in disappointment, Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs will be heading for the greener pastures of the NBA. Aaron Cook, Joel Ayayi, and Drew Timme could also exit. College careers are shot. Legacies are made in the blink of an eye.
The 5.92 KenPom efficiency mark separating Gonzaga from No. 2 Michigan is the largest gap in the history of his advanced analytics. We are in the process of watching history being made. It is up to us to figure out how to not let the stress of the loss creep in and ruin it all, but to sit back, and enjoy every 40 minute set of basketball as they come. Because this team is special. We won’t see another one like it for a long time, if at all.
Go Zags. One game at a time.