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The pain is always too real in March Madness

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament West Regional-Arkansas vs Gonzaga Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Although we tend to think of grief as a response to the loss of a loved one, a pet, or something of that stature in our lives, grief is just the emotional and mental response to loss. That is it.

It is fair to grieve right now. Yesterday, the Zags entered the NCAA Tournament favored against the No. 4 Arkansas Razorbacks. This morning, Arkansas is scheduled to play Duke on Saturday, and Gonzaga is looking back and wondering what the hell happened.

And there is plenty to wonder about. What if the Chet Holmgren actually committed his third, fourth, and theoretically fifth fouls? What if the Zags actually hit one or two of their wide-open three-pointers in transition, the sort of shots they’ve been hitting all year? What if Andrew Nembhard didn’t finish with the lowest offensive rating of his collegiate career since a random loss to Tennessee his freshman year? What if, what if, what if.

The very nature of a single-elimination tournament puts too much emphasis on the what if’s because every single human being on the planet knows that the NCAA Tournament doesn’t necessarily reward the best team more as it rewards the team that played the best for 40 minutes. That is why we all collectively love it for its madness and hate it at the same time. There isn’t a single intelligent soul out there who thinks Saint Peter’s is a better team than Kentucky solely based on that one game. No one in their right mind honestly believes that the North Carolina Tar Heels are going to best the Baylor Bears in a seven-game series.

You can add Gonzaga into that mix. Without taking anything away from everything Arkansas did right, in their game plan, in their execution, in their heart and play on the court, it is understandable as a Gonzaga fan to just feel, deep within your bones, that Gonzaga wins this game nine times out of 10.

(alright, the math says eight times out of 10)

Teams that can’t execute in the NCAA Tournament are the teams that lose, however. Gonzaga is not winning a game in which their starting point guard goes 2-for-11 with five turnovers. Gonzaga is not winning a game in which the team averages 0.88 points per possession.

We all know the reason why this outcome hurts is that Gonzaga lost this game as much as Arkansas won it. In time, maybe that will change, but for now, that is the dominant feeling. That doesn’t make me feel any better.

In a way, this level of grieving also comes with this new age of Gonzaga basketball, in which players are never guaranteed to stay for four years. So instead of saying so, long and farewell to the players we know are graduating, we also throw in (most definitely) Chet Holmgren well-wishes, (very high potentially) salutations to Andrew Nembhard and Rasir Bolton, and (would not be surprised whatsoever) secret handshakes to the likes of Drew Timme and Julian Strawther.

With that level of grieving we are processing now, there is also the idea that the Zags “missed the window.” And that is fair. Gonzaga has three straight No. 1 seeds and no titles to show for it. Are they the first team in history to do so? Of course not. Coach K and Duke received No. 1 seeds in eight of nine years from 1998-2006 and have one title to show for it. Kansas had three-straight No. 1 seeds in 2016-18 and their furthest trip was to the Elite Eight. Does any of that make it hurt less? Also, of course not.

The important thing to remember in this wacky college basketball world is that winning a national championship in college basketball is incredibly hard. Gonzaga still hasn’t done that yet, and until they do, that monkey will be on the back, whatever that monkey looks like (usually looks like Twitter user Garbo098764232857 with the generic egg for an avatar).

With all of that said, and by no means do you have to move there now, the future at Gonzaga is still bright. Is it as bright as it was these past three seasons? Maybe not as obviously. But we’ve been spoiled as of late. Gonzaga’s lost a total of seven games in three years. Since this NCAA Tournament streak began, Gonzaga’s lost that much or more in one season eight different years.

All of that goes to say that sports fandom is never easy. Especially when you root for a good team with actual expectations. The disappointment is real. The hurt is real. The pain is real. And it is all part of the process. Take care of yourselves, and go Zags.