What could possibly go wrong now?
As the Zags go bouncing into the Final Four, their record is perfect. Not many things speak louder in sports than a zero on the right side of the hyphen. History calls to them, even if they try to pretend they’re not listening. “It’s hard not to think about it,” freshman Jalen Suggs said.
The scores are breathtaking. Tuesday’s 85-66 win over USC was their 27th victory in a row by double digits. No No. 1 ranked team has ever done that. Ever.
The stats show little weakness, and the faces little stress. Gonzaga is first in the nation in scoring, shooting, winning. The offense is a wonder to behold, as Suggs described. “Just playing together, not letting the ball get too sticky, everybody moving around. Whoever gets the assists, gets the assist. Whoever gets the bucket, gets the bucket. Then we get back, get a defensive stop, and come do it again.”
It hasn’t been pleasant to stand in front of that, trying to stop a blue and white locomotive. But if there has been any revelation about the Zags in this tournament, it’s how well they play defense. “This is not a one-trick pony,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott warned. “These guys can play on both ends of the floor.”
Gonzaga has shown no nerves in Indianapolis, no fault line in the armor or crack in the wall. In four NCAA tournament games, when the heat is supposed to be on high and pressure the most burdensome, the Bulldogs’ smallest lead in the second half has been nine points — for 32 seconds against Oklahoma. Gonzaga missed its first four shots in Indianapolis against Norfolk State. The Bulldogs haven’t missed more than four in a row in the entire tournament. Nor are they typically the type to be upset victims. Since 2009, they’re 21-3 against lower seeds.
They savored Tuesday night. They weren’t wild or beside themselves, understand, but they were happy, even if it had an air of inevitability. The march of March goes on. “Everyone wants us to keep moving forward, but that’s not how we roll,” Mark Few said. “We’re wise enough to know these are really, really special times. These are great accomplishments. And they need to be celebrated.”
Still, they certainly looked like they expected to be back doing something like this next Monday night. UCLA, Baylor and Houston are the last hurdles, and it should make for an unusual semifinal round Saturday.
Gonzaga vs. UCLA for West Coast supremacy.
Baylor vs. Houston for the state championship of Texas.
Then the winners can settle the national title.
It’s the Zags’ to lose, or at least seems that way. But what fool out there would look around the game — and the world — in 2021 and say anything is a sure thing? Unbeaten teams have gone into the Final Four and lost. Six of them, in fact. Maybe their downfalls can offer hope to the Bruins and Bears and Cougars. Let’s take a look.
Kentucky was unbeaten in 2015. The Wildcats fell to Wisconsin in this very town, and in this very Lucas Oil Stadium, because the Badgers out-muscled them in rebounding and out-shot them when it counted. But it should be remembered that Notre Dame nearly upset Kentucky the week before in the regional final and gave something of a blueprint on how to play the Wildcats. USC didn’t furnish many ideas on what to do with Gonzaga Tuesday night, and neither has anyone else. Trojans coach Andy Enfield was asked how the Bulldogs could be beaten. “We didn’t do a very good job,” he answered, “so I’m probably the wrong person to ask.”
UNLV was unbeaten in 1991, mashing teams much like Gonzaga. And the Rebels were defending national champions. But they were upset in Indianapolis, too, when they seemed to lose their way once Duke proved it could play them close. Does Gonzaga look like the kind of team that will lose its way?
Indiana State was unbeaten in 1979, carried along by Larry Bird. Then the Sycamores ran into Magic Johnson. Magic Johnson ain’t in uniform this week in Indianapolis.
Neither is Kareem Abul-Jabbar. He was Lew Alcindor for UCLA in 1968 and that’s who was waiting for unbeaten Houston. It was like a lion waiting for a zebra.
Rutgers was unbeaten in 1976 and lost to Michigan. The Scarlet Knights shot 39 percent and had 26 turnovers against the Wolverines. Gonzaga might lose, but it’s very likely not going to be with 26 turnovers or 39-percent shooting.
Ohio State was unbeaten in 1961. The Buckeyes lost the championship game in overtime to a Cincinnati team that was so good, it knocked off the Buckeyes again in the title game the next year. So good that it was in the middle of five consecutive trips to the Final Four.
So there were good reasons why all those six unbeaten teams were stopped. UCLA, Baylor and Houston have less than a week to find one for Gonzaga. Up to now, it’s not very evident.