Will Gonzaga Ever Win It All?

Arkansas forward Jaylin Williams, left, celebrates after scoring next to Gonzaga forward Drew Timme (2) during the second half of a college basketball game in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament in San Francisco, Thursday, March 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

As usual, “March Madness” has lived up to its name. And, as usual, the Zags just cannot seem to claim that ever-elusive championship.

Once synonymous with the term “Cinderella Team,” the Gonzaga University men’s basketball team is no longer a lovable under-puppy. The program has matured into the “Big Bulldog” on campus, having entered each of the last two NCAA Tournaments as the No. 1 overall seed. Yet, the team that made national headlines for upsetting heavy favorites back in the late 1990s and early 2000s has fallen victim to the very identity upon which they built their foundation.

Following Thursday’s shocking 74-68 Sweet Sixteen loss to No. 4-seeded Arkansas, Gonzaga failed to reach the Elite for the first time since 2019 – although not the overall No. 1, the Bulldogs were the West’s top seed that year. In 2021, the Zags fell to fellow No. 1-seeded Baylor 86-70. Gonzaga went 26-0 and entered the tournament as heavy favorites a year ago and was 31-0 before taking on the 27-2 Bears.

While this year’s Bulldogs weren’t quite on par record-wise as last year’s squad, they entered the tournament at 26-3, finished 28-4, and held the nation’s No. 1 ranking for most of the regular season. After a 9-2 start to the season, Gonzaga caught fire, winning 17 straight and 21 out of 22 overall before the early tourney exit. Outside of this past Saturday’s 82-78 second round win over No. 9 Memphis, each of the Zags’ other 20 wins during that long stretch were by double digits, with an average margin of victory of 24.9 points, including nine games in which they won by 30 or more.

I’d say Gonzaga’s top tournament seed was justified. However, championships aren’t won based on seeding alone in the slightest. In all, the Zags have been a No. 1 seed five times – there are four No. 1’s each year, one for each branch of the bracket, just in case you’re new to March Madness – with their first such seeding coming in 2013 when they lost to No. 9 Wichita State in the second round.

Gonzaga’s early exit in 2013 could have been a learning experience as the team earned its next No. 1 seed in 2017 and cruised all the way to the final, ultimately falling 71-65 in the title game to another No. 1 seed, North Carolina. It was an Elite Eight exit for the No. 1 Bulldogs in 2019, losing 75-69 to No. 3 Texas Tech. Who knows what 2020 could have held as COVID forced the tournament to be canceled, leaving us with each of the last two years.

Yes, the ‘Dogs came up short, but fans of the prestigious Gonzaga basketball program should continue to hold their heads high and remember the humble beginnings from which it arose.

Rewind to 1995 – the Bulldogs’ first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. The little-known 14-seeded Gonzaga expectedly fell to No. 3 Maryland 87-63 in the first round. It took four years for the team to return to the big dance, this time as a 10 seed. The Bull-puppies took down No. 7 Minnesota, 75-63, then exploded onto the nation’s radar with an 82-74 win over No. 2 Stanford in the second round. The magical run – did someone say “Cinderella”? – continued with a 73-72 win over No. 6 Florida in the Sweet Sixteen. It took No. 1-seeded and eventual champion Connecticut to best the Zags, 67-62, in the Elite Eight. 

That 1999 tournament started the current 23-year run of consecutive appearances in the Big Dance for Gonzaga. The team lived up to its “Cinderella” status in 2000 and 2001, reaching the Sweet Sixteen each of those years despite having double-digit seeds (Nos. 10 and 12, respectively). Fast forward to 2015, and the Zags have advanced to at least the Sweet Sixteen in each of the last seven seasons. 

With great success comes great expectations. What was once an unexpected, phenomenal accomplishment has now become a disappointing shortcoming for the small school from Spokane, Washington. What will it take for Gonzaga to finally win its first-ever national title? Maybe the team needs to stop being a top seed and go back to its underdog roots—just an idea.