Gonzaga: The Team That Could Have Been

31-1. That’s how the Gonzaga Bulldogs ended their season on Monday, April 5. One win away from a perfect season, a coveted and undefeated 32-0. In what could have been one of the best teams and team performances in college basketball history, the Zags underperformed in the moment that mattered most. 

Gonzaga’s season was stellar. I genuinely thought that this was the best college basketball team that I have ever seen in my lifetime. This team was stacked. They had three Wooden Award nominees in Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert and Drew Timme. Kispert was a first team All-American and the West Coast Conference player of the year. Drew Timme was a second team All-American and won the Karl Malone award for being the best power forward in the nation. Jalen Suggs was also second team All-American, and Joel Ayayi was an Associated Press honorable mention. All four of these players are projected to be drafted in this year’s NBA Draft. Gonzaga was loaded with talent. 

As such, Gonzaga cruised through the easy West Coast Conference. They had the most points per game (91) and best average margin of victory (21) in the NCAA. In their victories, they won every game by 10 plus points except for two. This team was easily the best team in the NCAA statistically. 

When it got to tournament time, Gonzaga continued their domination. They beat 16 seed Norfolk State by 43, Oklahoma by 16, Creighton by 18 and USC by 19 before they got to the Final Four. They averaged just over 88 points in those four games, showcasing their incredible offensive talent. 

When it was time for the Final Four, the Zags hadn’t played a single-digit game since December 2, and UCLA gave them an incredible matchup in Indianapolis. This was one of the best college basketball games I’ve ever seen (only behind the Villanova-UNC Championship game in my opinion). There were 15 ties and 19 lead changes in this battle. UCLA and head coach Mick Cronin went from the First Four to the Final Four, which is only the second time that has happened in tournament history, and gave college basketball fans a much-needed instant classic in a tournament that lacked a key moment. This game was all that and more.  

The final ten minutes of this one were phenomenal, and the game ended up going to two overtimes. It came down to the final few seconds of double overtime when Johnny Juzang of UCLA made a putback layup to tie, and Jalen Suggs hit a dagger buzzer beater three off the glass to win it for the Zags. Major onions from Suggs. It was one of the coolest college basketball moments I have ever seen.

Going into the final, the Zags were a 4.5 point favorite against the Baylor Bears, which I thought was pretty low, but I guess Vegas knows best! Baylor won this game 86-70, and it was over from the tip-off. Gonzaga was dominated in this game from start to finish. Baylor got off to an 11-1 start as well as a 21-6 lead in the first half. This game was won down low for Baylor. They outrebounded the Zags 38-22 and 16-5 on the offensive glass. The Bears were so much more athletic and physical than the Bulldogs, who had no athletic bigs to matchup with Baylor.

It seemed like Baylor didn’t miss a shot in this game, but the Bulldogs actually shot better from the field than Baylor did (51% to 44.6%). It’s not that Gonzaga played poorly, it’s just that they were extremely outperformed in all aspects of the game. Gonzaga’s star players did not play well. Drew Timme had 12 points and was utterly bullied in the post as well as burned on defense. Corey Kispert was two of seven from three point land and Joel Ayayi had just eight points. They hadn’t scored 70 points or less since November 9, 2019, when they lost to Michigan and scored 64 points. That’s 55 games. 

What I take away from this game and what is the common criticism of Gonzaga basketball is that they are not geared to face teams like the Baylor Bears. I hated this theory for the longest time, but after this recent championship loss, something needs to change in Spokane. Yes, they scheduled tough competition this season, playing Kansas, Iowa, West Virginia, Virginia and Auburn, but this title game proved that their non-conference schedule wasn’t enough. They will not get over this hump until they win a National Championship, and this year was the year to do that. Gonzaga — the team that could’ve been one of the best college basketball teams of all time — underperformed in the one game they needed to, and this will continue to haunt the program and Mark Few until they win a National Championship.