Lost in what started out as “The Year of the Freshman“, which later morphed into, “The Year of the Freshman Point Guard“, and Villanova’s quest to win back-to-back national championships with a team constructed without the ubiquitous one-and-done dynamic of rent-a-players, has been the biggest story of the season.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs are on pace to finish the season undefeated headed into their conference tournament, and have a great chance to chase history. They have a legit shot at the Final Four, and if they win it all without a blemish, they’ll be the first team to do so since Lou Rawls said, “You’ll Never Find…” after the Indiana Hoosiers accomplished the feat in 1976.
Gonzaga is no stranger to having some excellent teams. They’re the Gold Standard when it comes to what a mid-major program aspires to in terms of consistency and fielding teams that can confidently send shivers down the backs of the the bluest of blue-blooded programs.
The Zags have reached the Elite Eight twice in program history, in 1999 and 2015. This year’s team provides the program with its best chance yet to reach the ever-elusive Final Four berth. One element that this squad has that most other Gonzaga teams did not is an ability to play, like the emcee’s on Tribe’s Scenario re-mix, many styles. On the defensive end, they create headaches for opposing coaches with individual parts that allow for interior muscle, paint protection, and an ability to effortless switch on the perimeter.
Big man Przemek Karnowski, aka “The Polish Hammer”, is not your average plodder. He’ll up you up on the blocks and if you double him, he’ll find the open man. The hefty lefty is a great college post player whose interior passing game and deft assortment of short shots is next-level, while point guard Nigel Williams-Goss is a supreme floor general of the highest order that a stat sheet will never fully illuminate what his true impact on a game really is. He will pick-and-roll you into submission if you’re not careful.
They bring in some depth off the bench and have the necessary ingredients of balance and versatility that can cook up a deep tournament run. Their guards are big, long and athletic and their rotation of post players is envied by even the most brand-name programs.
What I really like about them is they they have eight different players that could, on any given night, be their best player on the floor. And the interchangeability of their various parts on the perimeter and down low is vicious, delicious and nutritious.
There is no one clear, dominant front runner this year, which bodes well for Gonzaga this postseason. And unlike most of the best teams which are fueled by athleticism over experience, this crew has been around long enough to forge a collective intelligence that most teams don’t have. They also shoot the ball extremely well.
With all of that being said, the NCAA’s are always a crap-shoot that comes down to matchups. Coach Mark Few’s guys have the skills to pay the bills, but in a win or go home, game-by-game cauldron like March Madness, it doesn’t take much for even the best of teams to, despite their lofty expectations, to be saying bye-bye like Guy prior to the Elite Eight.
But don’t sleep on Gonzaga because of past times that never made it to the promised land. They’ve won 20 straight games by at least 10 points, something we havent seen at any level in since Ice Cube damn near dropped a triple-double back in the early ’90s.
In the modern era, UNLV in ’91, St. Joe’s in ’04, Wichita State in ’14 and Kentucky in ’15 are the only squads to finish their regular season undefeated. None of them won the national championship, with the Runnin’ Rebels and the Wildcats getting caught in the Final Four, and the Hawks and Shockers getting snuffed before then.
Teams don’t go undefeated while winning it all in college hoops anymore. At least it hasn’t happened in a long time. But don’t sleep on this Gonzaga crew. This team has all the elements in place for a Final Four run. If they make it there, they’ve got a good a shot as anyone to make history. Should be fun to watch.