“I don’t always choose watching college basketball in late-February and early March but, when I do, I prefer Gonzaga.”
Let’s up the ante on that two more Bing Crosbys. No one who ever paid a child’s tuition to rival Saint Mary’s has appreciated more what has risen along the bank-shots of the Spokane River.
I wasn’t on board for the 1999 squad that cracked its tournament egg en route to a no shame loss to eventual national champion Connecticut.
After that, however, you’ll see my deadlined face in a lot of NCAA, press-row, back drops.
That was me, in the corner, losing my 2003 religion in Salt Lake City when Arizona drew its last breath against Gonzaga in double overtime. It remains one of the top-five NCAA Tournament games I’ve ever witnessed.
That was me, also, chasing down Gonzaga Coach Mark Few in a hallway seeing if he would be interested in replacing Steve Lavin at some hoop-hole called UCLA. (He wasn’t, but Ben Howland was).
Adam Morrison, in 2006, in Oakland, crying at half court after his team blew a 17-point lead to UCLA in the regional semifinals?
I was close enough to hand Adam a hankie.
There I was again, center court, in 2013, when top-seeded Gonzaga was felled by No. 9 Wichita State in Salt Lake City.
Knowing that Few was a lost cause, I tried to interest Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall in the UCLA job vacated by Howland. Instead, the Bruins opted for the coach in that Salt Lake pod who lost to Harvard (Steve Alford).
Two years ago, yep, that was me in Seattle, chronicling Damontas Sabonis and Zags through first-weekend NCAA wins over North Dakota State and Iowa.
I have seen enough of Gonzaga to postulate: THIS is the best Gonzaga team I’ve seen. The 2016-17 edition is the most completely legitimate of all Zags outfitted since 1999.
No.1 Gonzaga entered Thursday night’s game at the University of San Diego as only the sixth team in the last 40 years to start 28-0.
(Sreak update: The Zags easily improved to 29-0 after handing USD a 58-point loss, the largest road margin of victory for No.1 in the history of the Associated Press poll.)
These Zags are the best because they are what I call ” Noah’s Ark” deep: they’ve got two of everything. The Zags are winning by an average of 23.7 points per game. They have yet to be tested. The team’s largest deficit of the season has been 11 points (versus Florida), and they’ve haven’t trailed by more than five since New Year’s Eve.
They are built on a base board of transfers (Nigel Williams-Goss) and tree-stump Euros, led by 7-footer Prezemek Karnowski, a bull in a polish shop who attended Nicolaus Copernicus high school in Warsaw.
Copernicus was the 16th-century astronomer who first suggested the Earth orbited around the Sun.
And now, 500 years later, everything is circling around Spokane.
Gonzaga has everything you need to win a national championship, except maybe love from the NCAA selection committee, which seeded the school the fourth best No.1 in its first mock reveal.
It seems clear to me there is only one logical thing left for Gonzaga to do between now and the tournament: The rest of this article is available to subscribers only – to become a subscriber click here. Lose ONE game.
Just to take the pressure off. Release the spit valve. Don’t become the mid-major, heel-stomp case the NCAA made in 2014 out of Wichita State, which dared to enter the tournament undefeated only to get sent to the “bracket of death.”
(Streak update 2: The Zags did it! They listened to Rankman by losing at home Saturday night to Brigham Old. For heeding my advice, Gonzaga is now poised for a less pressurized trip through the NCAA Tournament. The Zags, despite falling to 29-1, are still projected by most bracket mockers as a No.1 seed in the tournament. Even falling to No. 2 won’t hurt much unless, as Jerry Palm of CBS Sports noted Sunday, Gonzaga gets bumped out of the West by a fast-rising Pac 12 champion that ends up worthy of a No.1 seeding).
History, frankly, has not been kind to undefeated teams looking to make deep NCAA runs. And there is really no upside benefit to it. There is a reason Indiana, in 1976, is the last team to do it.
Jerry Tarkanian often said he wished his 1991 UNLV team would have lost a regular season game before the NCAA Tournament.
Tark’s Rebels, coming off the 1990 NCAA title, cruised through the season. Tark said it was so easy he only rarely needed to nervously gnarl on his towel.
UNLV rode a 45-game winning streak into the national semifinals against Duke–everyone knows the end of that story.
Gonzaga doesn’t need to go undefeated–it needs to make the Final Four for the first time in school history.
To do that Mark Few should copy the script John Calipari laid out for Massachusetts in 1995-96.
Calipari says the turning point occurred Feb. 24 at the Mullins Center in Amherst.
Final score: George Washington 86, UMass 76.
The loss dropped Cal’s team to 26-1.
“In the end, it was good to get the streak off our backs,” Calipari later wrote, with Dick Weiss, in his book, “Refuse to Lose.”
Calipari noted “I’m not sure we would have advanced to the Final Four if we had remained unbeaten during the regular season. Other teams would have had that much more incentive to beat us.”
Gonzaga is in the same fix, a “mid-major” in the national cross hairs.
Winning all your games is tough, physically and emotionally. Plus, you have to win more games now.
Consider: the final record of each of John Wooden’s four undefeated UCLA squads was 30-0.
Two years ago, Calipari’s elite Kentucky collection got to 38-0 before tightening up in the national semifinals against Wisconsin.
Calipari said all along, “We’re not perfect, we’re undefeated.”
Final: Wisconsin, 71-64.
The pressure on Calipari’s “Teen Beat” sensations was intense, as it was the year before for Wichita State, which finished 34-1 after a first-weekend loss to…Kentucky.
We would not expect the NCAA committee to sugar-coat undefeated Gonzaga’s trip through the tournament the way they do for blue bloods like Duke and North Carolina.
In fact, us conspiracy nuts in the west anticipate Gonzaga receiving a vicious, second-round matchup vs. the 8\9 winner. Maybe a team like USC out of the Pac 12.
Gonzaga’s big problem now is that it isn’t fixed to lose. The Zags need only to defeat Brigham Young on Saturday to finish the regular season at 30-0.
Remember, that was the final record of FOUR of UCLA’s best dynasty teams.
The last, best chance for defeat may be in the WCC finals against Saint Mary’s, which last year swept Gonzaga in the regular season before losing to the Zags in the conference finals.
Gonzaga, though, easily handled the Gaels in two games this season.
It’s more probable now there will be no stopping the Zags until they are stopped.
It’s history, or bust, with the heavy money coming in on bust.
The latest odds-makers like Duke to win it all. Of course they do.
And you know one thing none of Coach K’s five previous NCAA title teams have been?
That’s right: undefeated.