Since Gonzaga first began its streak of consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament back in 1999, currently spanning 22 years, there have only been 12 schools named NCAA Champion.
That right there is often why the Final Four is so celebrated in college basketball. The NCAA Tournament is one of the most brutal affairs in college basketball. Over the course of the final weekend, four very good teams are reduced to two and then further to one.
Today, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are playing in their second national championship game in school history. A win today will not only make the history books at the school, it will also make college basketball history. Gonzaga would join UCLA, Indiana, North Carolina, and San Francisco as the only undefeated national champions. A win today will make the Zags the first (and only) undefeated national champion since the tournament expanded to its current format of 64 (and eventually 68) teams.
We all have our stories of how we became Gonzaga fans. We all have our stories of how we have suffered through tournament losses. We all have the loss that stings the most. We all have our favorite tournament memory. Gonzaga has provided opportunities for all of these to be built. And in the process, has transformed itself from a tiny Jesuit school in the jewel of the inland Northwest to a national powerhouse. Spokane’s location is known by people all around the country because of Gonzaga. The Zags are that recognizable.
They’ve evolved from a team that got the most out of scrappy players from largely rural parts of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. The Zags no longer completely rely on importing talented foreign prospects to offset the domestic recruiting scene. Gonzaga is now a masterful blend of top-rated recruits, international prospects, and hard-working local guys. All of this held together by a coaching staff that understands the importance of the notion of basketball as a team game, prioritizing the community-building as much as the practice.
Along the way, the entire way, Gonzaga has attracted its fair share of vocal naysayers and haters. That is what happens when the status-quo is upset. That is what happens when the traditional power players have to find a new seat for someone to sit at the table. They lash out, often times as irrationally as possible, because the very existence of their identity is threatened. That identity was always meant to be threatened. That is how power in the select hands of the few works.
I’ve been talking quite a bit with friends about the stupid importance of Gonzaga winning the national championship, solely for my own ease of viewing games and fandom. Perhaps I am wrong, but after seeing Gonzaga get so close once, and thinking Gonzaga was so close many times before, winning the entire thing will make it easier to watch future NCAA Tournaments. There won’t be that dreading sense of “what if” that has permeated my view throughout these past few years. What if Kennedy Meeks was called out of bounds? What if Killian Tillie didn’t get injured two hours before tip? What if, what if, what it?
The one thing we know that comes with a win on Monday is that Gonzaga, after two decades and countless contributions by too many players, coaches, and staff to count, are NCAA Champions. Over the course of 82 NCAA Championship games, only 38 schools have hung a banner in the rafters. On the 83rd title game, the Zags would be the 39th.
I constantly think about how much has had to go right for Gonzaga to make it here. It all begins with a head coach and athletic director who have proven to be unicorns in the college world for length of stay with their current employer. It took players from yesteryear, Ronny Turiaf, Jeremy Pargo, Kevin Pangos, Josh Perkins, Nigel Williams-Goss, Zach Collins, Matt Santangelo, John Stockton, Frank Burgess, and every single player to ever don a Gonzaga uniform to properly set the stage for this year to happen. Everything had to go right, and up to exactly this point in the season, everything has gone right.
If Gonzaga wins today, I don’t care about comparing them to any other team in college basketball. They don’t need to be the best team in college history. That argument is circular and stupid. They will be one of the best teams in college history. That allows us to celebrate all of the other phenomenal runs we have seen from amazing teams, each one deserving its own accolades.
We have 40 more minutes to appreciate one of the statistically best Gonzaga basketball teams we will probably see in our lifetime. I’m not sure what I will do if they cut down the nets. Probably cry, and then finally sit back and relax for the first time in my March Madness viewing history.