INDIANAPOLIS – In the hours after the 2017 Final Four, after Nigel Williams-Goss’ drive on a flat-tire ankle had been snuffed and North Carolina had scissored the nets, there was an odd little euphoria amid the disappointment at the airport gates or lounges or wherever a Gonzaga basketball votary or two gathered.
The Bulldogs hadn’t won the national championship. But the possibility that they could was being recast – with reason – as the probability that they eventually would.
And what do you know? There were the Zags back in the title game just four years later.
But this time, the hangover of defeat gave off an odor of anxiety.
After all, these Bulldogs had made it through 31 games without a loss, and by the accepted math were more adept in the scoring arts than any college team in history. Ranked No. 1 all season, during which the sport’s marquee powers reeled. A no-bumps run to the Final Four. Betting favorites in the title game.
A coronation seemed more likely than a coup.
If not now, you know, when?
But the 86-70 throttling the Baylor Bears administered on Monday night has left a couple of nagging questions.
How good do you have to be?
And how many chances at a national championship do you get?
Gonzaga’s startlingly dominant pre-New Year’s victories over Top 25 teams – flawed though they were later revealed to be – and the early romps of the tournament were not fool’s gold. The Zags weren’t just legit, but elite. But coach Mark Few – having had a scheduled game against Baylor canceled because of a positive COVID-19 test – was all too aware the Bears were every bit as elite, and a bad matchup. And all upperclassmen.
“Look, I’ve been watching them all year and last year and I knew they were going to be a handful for us,” he said.
“Just those guards are so quick and they can all get to their own shot. They’re obviously more athletic than we are up around the rim. But I thought we might be able to find some advantages, too.”
Baylor made sure they didn’t. The Bears had GU “playing sideways,” as Few put it.
Will is the ultimate tiebreaker.
All the other barstool theories got routed. The Lousy Conference Doesn’t Prepare Them theory – just how far in the tournament must they advance every year for people to give up on that? The Fatigue From the UCLA Epic. The Carrying the Weight of Chasing Unbeaten History theory.
Baylor didn’t play better because it lost to Kansas in February, folks.
The fact is, even with a generational player like Jalen Suggs and a remarkable cast, the Zags had flaws, too. They were capable of playing good defense, but without rim-protecting back stops, it didn’t have the same bite as the ’17 Bulldogs. Another piece up front was needed off the bench. While Few and his staff continue to add skill with dazzling five-star recruits, chasing more athleticism that can cause real disruption – on both ends – seems called for, too.
And if those athletes can shoot the 3 like Baylor – that was no one-off, either – all the better.
But if the 2021 record wound up not being perfect, the Bulldogs often reached perfection. Suggs’ sensational play in the semifinal, including the shot of the year that didn’t come in a syringe. Corey Kispert raining in nine 3s in one game. Drew Timme’s big man ballet. Joel Ayayi’s uncanny back cuts and wing cuts and death by a thousand paper cuts.
The Zags or those who can’t resist the pull of social media will have to endure another round of Can’t Win the Big One, posturing that – along with lungs – is apparently standard issue to sports fans at birth along. Every year, Few explains patiently – or not so patiently – that validation, in his view, does not come with a giant foam index finger.
“That’s total ignorance,” he said earlier this tournament of the notion that not winning it all would make the season a forgettable failure.
“We will give everything in our souls and bodies to win a national championship ... but that’s just really shallow.”
But he’s never going to beat back the championship uber alles culture. It’s just who we are.
That so much has been achieved at Gonzaga in 23 short years has led to people needing the final stamp now – or to fearing that the door will slam shut any minute when the basketball gods finally figure out what’s been going on when they weren’t looking.
Well, consider this:
Between 1964 and 1990 – 27 years – a certain noted basketball power went to four NCAA title games and lost each time, before finally winning it all in 1991.
Duke figured out how good you have to be. And that it’s up to you to make as many opportunities as you need.