The last year Gonzaga missed the NCAA Tournament was 1998, quite a run from a lowly West Coast Conference school in the oddly placed town of Spokane, Washington to a national powerhouse. The most unique team in college sports is a fixture of March Madness, becoming more closely associated with the blue bloods than the bracket busters typically associated with the Bulldogs’ league opponents. Yet, they’ve never lifted a national championship. Heck, Gonzaga has only been to two Final Fours.
This season won’t derail Mark Few’s team, who coincidentally started coaching Gonzaga in 1999. The Bulldogs are currently projected to be a No. 3 seed according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, the highest seed from a low-level conference. In-conference rival St. Mary’s is a No. 5 seed. The next closest is a No. 10 seed for Florida Atlantic. That puts Gonzaga truly on an island of college basketball and figuring out why a move to the Pac-12 or Big 12 hasn’t happened yet will only get louder in the current era of conference realignment. Gonzaga men’s basketball is so good that it may be the only school where it doesn’t matter that no football team exists. And it’s not about to join the Big East, where exactly one school (UConn) has an FBS football program.
This year’s Gonzaga team has somehow flown under the radar and isn’t thought to be a popular choice to win a national championship, like each of the last two seasons. Despite having Drew Timme under scholarship at age 79 and Rasir Bolton playing the part of an experienced, big-time guard, which every team needs to go deep in March Madness, the underrated nature of this Gonzaga team will be better translated to upset-prone.
The two Gonzaga teams to make Final Fours were dominant, no-doubt No. 1 seeds, only falling in 2017 and 2021 to fellow No. 1 seeds in national-championship games. And let’s not forget how those North Carolina and Baylor teams left no doubt that the Bulldogs’ position in college basketball was well deserved as runners-up. Against ranked teams this season, Gonzaga is 3-4. In those two silver-medal years, it was 6-1. Both lone losses were in the national championship game. Yup, the Bulldogs didn’t lose to a ranked team all year until the final 40 minutes of the season. The ball is tipped, and they lost right before “One Shining Moment” is played on CBS.
I’m sure there’s hope way out West. I’m not sure any faith exists for Gonzaga this season outside of The Evergreen State. The Bulldogs will eventually run into a team that’s better tested, deeper, and played tougher competition consistently this season. All the signs were there for a Sweet 16 upset a year ago that everyone ignored. Gonzaga ended the season 5-4 against ranked teams. At best, Gonzaga is a second-weekend team at best and anyone telling you otherwise hasn’t studied the history.
Trends are meant to be broken, sure. And I’ll have no problem admitting I was wrong should a third Final Four be in store for Spokane’s favorite sons. If there’s one reason to believe this Bulldog team are the slump busters, it’s Julian Strawther, who may be the most underrated player in America. He’s been Gonzaga’s leading scorer only four times this season, but when he gets hot, few can stop him. Strawther is a matchup nightmare in the WCC and for many of the teams that’ll be in The Big Dance. His tenacity on both sides of the court could be Kemba Walker-like. I know that’s one heck of a comparison. If he doesn’t show up in the tournament, it could be one-and-done for the Zags.
That is the trouble with trusting any Gonzaga team that hadn’t all but clinched a No. 1 seed by the time the calendar flips to March. And this team hasn’t done that. Gonzaga has been successful despite being in the WCC, not because of it. And the Bulldogs have somehow always retained Mark Few, who’s only ever coached at Gonzaga. Do you know how many calls he must’ve rejected to stay with the school? And the money he’s left on the table? That’s dedication, but not enough to win a national championship. And it won’t happen this season either.