The Gonzaga Bulldogs are heading to their 22nd consecutive NCAA Tournament. What's new?
A lot, actually. It's become a nearly annual tradition to wonder if head coach Mark Few has put together his best team or best season ever. Every team, year after year, tends to make a pretty strong case. This year's bunch might not have earned the superlative just yet, but they've done quite a few things that none who came before managed to accomplish.
"I've said it before," Few said after a win over Loyola Marymount on Feb. 27. "It's getting harder and harder to find something that's never been done in this program."
Those never-been-done accomplishments started way back in November, when the Zags were tabbed as the preseason No. 1 team in the country in the AP poll. Gonzaga had been No. 1 in the poll before, of course. Last year they spent four weeks there, and the previous year they lasted for five. In total, entering this season, Gonzaga had spent 16 weeks, all since the 2013 season, atop the nation's Top 25 rankings.
This year they've more than doubled that total. Gonzaga had never been No. 1 in the preseason. Normally it took until the waning days of the season, when teams ahead of them slogged through their conference play picking up losses, for Gonzaga's ascension to become complete. This year, they sat in the top spot from start to finish.
As is typical, the Zags scheduled aggressively during the nonconference portion of their season. This year, though, they set themselves up for a run through the gantlet. Over their first seven games the Zags faced four teams ranked in the AP poll. No. 6 Kansas came up 12 points short. No. 11 West Virginia lost by just five, the Zags' only single-digit margin of victory all season. Third-ranked Iowa lost by 11, and the defensive juggernaut of No. 16-ranked Virginia gave up 98 points and fell 23 shy of the Zags.
No team in men's Division I college basketball history had ever defeated four ranked teams in its first seven games until this year's Zags did so in incredibly convincing fashion.
From there it was on to conference play, and as usual the Zags ran through the West Coast Conference with ease. For the sixth time in program history, Gonzaga ended its regular season unblemished in league play, and for the second time did so by winning every game by 10 points or more. They last accomplished that in 2019, but ultimately fell to Saint Mary's in the title game of the conference tournament.
This year there would be no such slip-up. Gonzaga was tested by BYU in the title game but ultimately won by 10. That run of absolute dominance led some, including Coach Few, to wonder if the Zags would benefit from a loss, or at the very least a challenge.
"In a sadly sadistic way I was kind of hoping we would face this at some point," Few said after defeating BYU. "I told them at halftime, I told them early in the game, this is what we need. We need this, and we need to hit it head on."
In the second half of the WCC title game the Zags put on a performance that showed just how talented this team is. After a rough first half they reverted to their true selves, to the team that they'd been all season long. They once again became the best team in the country, and among the best the sport has ever seen.
The last team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated was the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats. According to statistician Ken Pomeroy, the Wildcats that season had an adjusted efficiency margin of plus-37.43, which means that against a hypothetical statistically average college team, they'd win by 37.43 points in a 100-possession game. Entering the NCAA Tournament this year, Gonzaga's sitting at plus-37.45. No team in Pomeroy's database, which goes back to 2002, has ever entered the NCAA Tournament as high in that efficiency metric as Gonzaga will this season.
Long known for its offensive prowess, and this year is no different, the Zags have become a well-rounded machine on both sides of the ball. Pomeroy ranks them first nationally in offensive efficiency, but also 12th nationally in defensive efficiency. For this squad, those two numbers are fundamentally linked.
"The guys came out and played fantastic defense in the second half, and obviously our offense got going because of our defense," Few said after the WCC championship.
The Zags play fast. There's a 30-second shot clock, but it's of no concern for Gonzaga; offensive possessions last on average just 14 seconds for them. A defensive stop leads to a run out, and whether it's Corey Kispert pulling up from the wing, Joel Ayayi slashing to the rim or Drew Timme powering into the post on the secondary break, the Zags are lethal when they get out and run.
On top of being historic, this season's also been incredibly fun to watch. Even for the players.
"At some point you kinda got to acknowledge how special of a thing and how special of a ride we're on right now," freshman point guard Jalen Suggs says. "I think the best part about it is we're all excited for it, we're all happy to keep it going, but we're all ready to get back to work and get ready for [the NCAA Tournament]."
In a season derailed at times and made difficult throughout by the coronavirus pandemic, the Zags have found a successful balance. They've overcome every challenge they've faced. They've won 26 games so far and all that's left is to go out and win six more. Indiana was the last team to make it through a season unscathed, in 1975-76.
"What a perfect team to go through 2020-2021 with," Few says. ♦