One last turn, for the most unusual season and NCAA tournament in history.
On the brink of a championship weekend that so many have worked so hard to get to — coaches, players, health professionals, NCAA staffers, Indianapolis volunteers and faces no one will ever know — we can tell the uniqueness of the closing drama by all the what-ifs. And the cutouts in the courtside seats.
What if Gonzaga is the team standing Monday night, at the end of a road filled with potholes and pauses? “Last part of our journey,” Mark Few called it.
Then college basketball will see something it has not witnessed in 45 years, something it has seen only seven times ever — a champion with no losses and no opponents left to beat. It will have been accomplished by a team that has shown extraordinary offense and historic dominance, and a coach who has shown an uncommon determination to stay put. What is more remarkable, that Gonzaga has won so consistently the past 22 years or that Mark Few is still there after 22 years?
But about that unbeaten season . . .
“We haven’t spent any time on it at all, we just want to win this tournament,” Few said in his Friday press conference. “I’m just telling you guys, at no time has it come up.”
The Zags certainly have never looked like a team feeling the weight of the precious opportunity to be perfect. Not the way they keep blowing through opponents. “What you see is real,” Few said. “They don’t seem the least bit burdened by it.”
Through its relentless march to this brink of greatness, it has been easy to forget that not so long ago Gonzaga was seen as a Cinderella story from somewhere in the Northwest, getting noticed by making trouble for bigger fry. Now when the ball is passed from Jalen Suggs to Corey Kispert to Drew Timme to whomever else is open, it is the work of a star-studded team that has been at center stage every moment of this season. A steamroller that routinely scores 90 points and wins by 15 or 20 or 25.
And lest it be forgotten, this is a team that lost four of its top six scorers from the season before. Few said he has been amazed at his players’ ability to keep focus and competitive fire through an unbeaten schedule, when nearly every game has been in the juiceless quiet of empty arenas. Had someone told him in November that Gonzaga would be 30-0 on April 3, “I’d have absolutely laughed.”
When Gonzaga meets 11th-seeded UCLA Saturday it will be the heavyweight champion of college basketball trying to slap down a spunky underdog. Twenty years ago, even 10 years ago, which program was which in that sentence would have been the other way around. A Gonzaga championship represents the final steps in the ascent to the very elite of the sport. This might have been unimaginable when this century began, but it’s not anymore: Gonzaga is a blueblood.
But what if UCLA wins it all? First, the Bruins will have had to pull off one of the most surprising upsets in recent Final Four memory. Secondly, they will have overcome their Indianapolis curse. UCLA has lost only two NCAA championship games in its history, and both were here. Then there would be a 12th national championship banner for Pauley Pavilion, but one secured nothing at all like the first 11. The 1995 champion Bruins were a No. 1 seed. The 10 John Wooden champions were all juggernauts, with 10 defeats combined. This UCLA team has nine by itself. and skidded into the tournament on a four-game losing streak.
The Wooden dynasty was built by dominance at the front of the pack. This UCLA team has surged from the back. Nobody has ever made the leap from First Four to the national championships ladder. Villanova of 1985 is considered the ultimate underdog epic, as the Wildcats stunned Georgetown as a No. 8 seed, the lowest ever for a champion. The Bruins are three spots lower than that. Their nine defeats would match the most for a champion in the past 33 years. Their title would be the first for the Pac-12, and the West Coast, in 24 years.
“They play a tournament for a winner,” Mick Cronin said Friday, “We’re here to try to finish off what we started.”
It has taken 18 years as head coach in three schools for Cronin to get here. He values toughness above nearly anything else, and it was the Bruins’ stubborn refusal to let Michigan score that sent UCLA onward. How will that toughness fare when Gonzaga starts running its offense? “We know we’re in for a real rock fight,” Few said.
What if Baylor wins it all? It doesn’t take a very long trip into the record book to find a Bears program in utter and total shambles, smeared with scandal. One persistent coach has given Baylor a transformation that is busting through the barriers of the past. Scott Drew has worked 18 years in Waco for this moment. The Bears are already in the program’s first Final Four in 71 years, and now wish to play for the national championship for the first time since 1948. And after that could come the first title in school history, and only the second for the state of Texas.
Baylor, and maybe only Baylor, is often mentioned as the one team with the power and muscle and talent to stand with Gonzaga. They were supposed to play Dec. 5 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, but 90 minutes before tipoff the game was scrubbed because of COVID in the Zags’ camp. If Gonzaga and Baylor win Saturday night, they will at last get around to one another. Precisely four months later and roughly four blocks southwest, they will finally play that game.
What if Houston wins it all? The Cougars have been close before, but not for more than a generation. A school that went to five Final Fours in 18 years has had to wait 37 years to ever get back. Now this is a program that has been revived, and a coach in Kelvin Sampson whose career has been rejuvenated.
Houston does not have the gilded pedigree of UCLA nor the star wattage of Gonzaga and Baylor. As with the Bruins, Houston is a different team than the old Final Four Cougars. They had the glamor of Phi Slama Jama in the 1980s, and the flashy scoring numbers of Elvin Hayes in the 1960s. This Houston team has gotten here on grit, especially defensively. All-American Jared Butler’s numbers for Baylor should be closely monitored Saturday night. He is the Bears’ leading scorer, and the four other leading scorers who have faced Houston in this tournament have averaged under nine points a game and shot 25 percent.
“They believe in the work they’ve put in, they believe in the results,” Sampson said. “And when we get in tight moments they believe that those results and that work will come through for them.”
The Cougars also have a little seed history to fight. One would think being a No. 2 seed stamps a team as a genuine title contender. The past begs to differ. Only two No. 2s – Villanova 2016 and Connecticut 2004 – have won the championship this century.
Gonzaga’s chance at perfection, UCLA’s late charge, Baylor and Houston’s Texas-sized wait to get back to this spot — such is the nature of the 2021 Final Four. And all of that is to be on display in a stadium whose lower bowl will be filled mostly with cardboard figures, while families sit in the second level able to see their sons, but not touch them. No bands, no cheerleaders, just basketball and masks and swab tests five hours before the game. This Final Four will pass but once.