It has been a longtime coming for Gonzaga basketball. A small school in a small town far away from the rest of the country playing in a much smaller conference isn’t supposed to be making this much noise year after year in college basketball, but here they are.
The Bulldogs have truly become one of the blueblood powerhouse programs in the nation and this could be the year that Mark Few’s team is able to make a push for the National Championship.
At the time I am writing this, Gonzaga is one of just two teams that are still undefeated. Gonzaga is ranked one and the other is ranked two, the Baylor Bears. But even with that, the Dogs have played three more games than the Bears, sitting at 20-0 for the time being and less than a few weeks away from the month of March.
Mark Few took over this program in 1999, making the NCAA Tournament in year one and getting as high as the 22nd overall ranking. Since that season, Gonzaga has never missed the NCAA Tournament. They have been ranked number one in the country in five different seasons. They have made the Sweet 16 nine times, the Elite Eight three times, and of course played in the Final Four and National Championship in 2017.
It has been a steady ride of success in the Few era but it has always come up short. This could be the year that finally, one and for all, changes that. It seemed like last year could be the year too but then COVID-19 hit and the plans for a National Championship run were not just put on hold but cancelled entirely. It was maybe the best team that Few has ever coached and they were denied their chance of finally winning the big one, for a good reason obviously but still extremely painful nonetheless.
Last March, this is what Few had to say when he learned that the whole tournament was cancelled.
“Extremely, extremely disappointed. Extremely disappointed. I think all of us felt we could postpone, and even postpone into May or whatever and if we needed to cancel, we could cancel then. But if that’s what they’re doing, then I guess that’s what they’re doing. … This is a sad, sad day. … I think we probably could have at least paused or delayed it,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few told ESPN’s Rece Davis.
Think he is disappointed or something? It feels like all that disappointment has been fueled into this season and the team has actually improved from an already flawless 2019-2020 campaign. If we thought that Gonzaga had a shot at doing the damn thing last year, what are supposed to think about what they may do this year?
Last Saturday the tournament selection committee announced its top 16 seeds and with no real surprise, Gonzaga was sitting in the driver seat with the number one overall spot locked down.
“We cannot argue this one,” CBS basketball analyst Clark Kellogg said. “Gonzaga is high-octane offensively. They’ve been good for a decade and a half under (coach) Mark Few and clearly this is one of his best teams. Versatility offensively is what’s most impressive about this group.”
They nailed this one. Versatility is important and that is exactly what this team does well. Typically we see the starting five of Gonzaga made up of older players and true vets, which is partially the case this time around, but they are also relying on a young guy.
Jalen Suggs has been excellent in his role as a freshman. Averaging the third most points on the team, shooting the best free-throw percentage of anyone on the squad. Few doesn’t have a ton of one and done guys, but Suggs could be a real exception. The guard is averaging over 14 a game and bringing down over five assists and four rebounds per contest.
Then of course there is Drew Timme. He is just a sophomore but the forward averages nearly 20 a game and over seven rebounds, putting together plenty of double-doubles along the way. Don’t forget staples like Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi. Both those guys are averaging double digits with Kispert close to 20 and they both add value when grabbing boards.
This roster is full of talent and Few is the right guy to put all that to work. Not to be too punny, but Few is one of the few guys in the NCAA coaching pool who can make all this work as seamlessly as it has and now they are set up for some major success with March right around the corner.
But as we know in college basketball, it doesn’t always matter how good or dominant you are in the regular season, it all comes down to March Madness and the tournament. This is where we have seen a number one team like Virginia go down to a school we had never heard of before. Or teams that seem like powerhouses, not even reaching the Sweet 16. There is no predicting how the Cinderella teams will fare and who will be the one to upset the big dog, but it happens. Unfortunately for Gonzaga, they will have a target on their back and a bullseye on their forehead for the entire tournament. There is something special about knocking off the number one seed and we know that each team they have to face will be gunning for them.
There will certainly be some established teams that are going to provide their fair share of issues to the Bulldogs and they will just have to work through that. Look out for teams like Alabama who defend the three well, Michigan who has one of the best frontcourts in the country or an Illinois who have a talented duo when they stay out of foul trouble. Those are the obvious suspects this year but maybe the dark horses to upset this team are guys like Texas Tech and Missouri, who can shoot from deep and play fast-tempo.
There is no predicting what happens in March but this really could be the year that it all comes together for Gonzaga and let’s hope so. Few teams have been able to keep this sustained success for so long without being able to boast a ring. Patience is key and that is exactly what this program has demonstrated over 20 years.