Sports

Gonzaga Could Become the Greatest Men’s College Basketball Team Ever

Or they could lose in the tournament and get forgotten.

Teammates charge together on the court to celebrate.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrate their 88–78 victory over Brigham Young to win the championship game of the West Coast Conference on Tuesday in Las Vegas. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

For a truly exceptional college basketball team, the line between “one of the best of all time” and “niche bar trivia answer” is exceedingly thin. In 2004, Saint Joseph’s and Stanford both made it to March unbeaten. Both lost before the NCAA Tournament and then failed to make the Final Four. How thoroughly have those teams been forgotten? Well, I am a huge college sports dork, and to remember which year this happened I had to Google “Delonte West Jameer Nelson St. Joe’s.” Stanford had no such memorable players. There are Stanford alums who do not remember that Stanford team.

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In 2015, Kentucky started 38–0 and fielded one of the most talented rosters ever—Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Trey Lyles are all still in the NBA—before losing in a national semifinal. Those Wildcats are remembered as just that: mega-talented, but not as anything more.

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It’s not fair that the American sports zeitgeist immediately exiles teams that don’t win championships. But that’s the reality, and it’s precisely what the Gonzaga Bulldogs are facing if they don’t cap an undefeated regular season with the school’s first national title. The Zags, clearly the best team of the 2020–21 season, are about to become one of two things: yet another example of a so-called midmajor failing to prove itself on the biggest stage, or the greatest men’s college basketball team that’s ever played. Acknowledging our tendency to tell oversimplified stories about sports teams, it’s possible there has never been a team with a wider range of storytelling arcs, this late in a season, than Gonzaga.

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Why is Gonzaga so good? Mostly because the roster is loaded, led by senior forward Corey Kispert, sophomore center Drew Timme, and five-star freshman point guard Jalen Suggs. Kispert, a likely NBA lottery pick, leads the team in scoring and is a member of the fabled 50-40-90 club, shooting 54 percent from the field, 44 percent from 3-point range, and 90 percent from the line.

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The 6-foot-10 Timme leads the team in rebounding and is a prodigious finisher around the basket.

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Suggs, who should go in the top five in the 2021 draft, is one of the most athletic guards to come through college hoops in years. He’s not a big 3-point guy (Kispert handles that), but Suggs cuts through the defense, piles up assists, and is a general nightmare to guard. Oh, and he does make 3-pointers when it matters.

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The Zags’ stars are great, but this isn’t a top-heavy roster. The rotation ran 10 deep for much of the season, though coach Mark Few has trimmed it to a more typical seven—Joel Ayayi, Andrew Nembhard, Anton Watson, and Aaron Cook join Kispert, Timme, and Suggs—in the rare moments when Gonzaga has faced any kind of threat. But Gonzaga is so historically good that those threats have been few and far between.

The Bulldogs haven’t missed a tournament since 1998, two years before Few took over. But in the 2000s and early 2010s, the team was a March Madness Cinderella, perennially punching up. Gonzaga isn’t from a power conference and didn’t recruit like it, either. Legendary forward Adam Morrison, who led Gonzaga in the midaughts, was an unrated recruit.

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Few’s strength was in evaluation and development, as Gonzaga took players blue-blood programs mostly didn’t want (or didn’t find). During this period, Gonzaga became synonymous with international recruiting, landing talents from France (Ronny Turiaf), Germany (Elias Harris), Poland (Przemek Karnowski), Lithuania (Domantas Sabonis), and Japan (Rui Hachimura), as well as bunch of star Canadians (among them Kevin Pangos and Kelly Olynyk).

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More recently, Gonzaga—which made the national title game in 2017—has blended its international finds with higher-touted Americans. Suggs, who was the nation’s No. 11 overall recruit, and Kispert could soon become Few’s fifth and sixth lottery picks since 2016 and eighth and ninth first-rounders since Morrison in 2006. Putting together talent from around the world, Gonzaga has become a recruiting force not quite on the order of Duke or Kentucky but good enough to ensure Few’s team can beat any team in college basketball without having to overperform.

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Recruiting players who are not quite good enough to go straight to the NBA can actually be an advantage, allowing the team to build cohesion and chemistry over years rather than months. For instance, Kispert, a four-star recruit from Seattle in the class of 2017, has steadily grown into a star over four seasons. But the Zags are now happy to take one-and-done guys, too: See Suggs and the class of 2021’s top player, center Chet Holmgren, who will likely attend Gonzaga if he opts to go to college.

The Bulldogs are now the kind of power they used to try to slay. This pandemic tournament is their chance to do the only thing they’ve still yet to do.

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If chalk wins out and the No. 1 overall seed Zags take the title, they will have the strongest objective case for the claim of best team ever. “Objective” is itself a subjective concept in these discussions, but consider the mountain of pre-tournament evidence showing Gonzaga is different than everyone else, most notably the seven champions that have gone undefeated in the tournament era.

• A national championship would see the Zags finish 32–0, unless the tournament is somehow shortened because of the pandemic. That’d be the same record as the last team to run the gauntlet in Division I, Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Each of John Wooden’s four undefeated champs at UCLA, in the ’60s and ’70s, won exactly 30 games. 1957 North Carolina was another 32–0 team, and 1956 San Francisco went 29–0. So, it’s highly unlikely any undefeated champ will have won more games than a 32–0 Gonzaga outfit. On top of that, those teams played in eras when the tournament had between 22 and 32 teams, and most had byes to start the event. The postseason grind they faced was nothing like what Gonzaga is facing now.

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• The average Zags game has a 92–69 final score. The only member of the unbeaten champions club that can answer that is Wooden’s 1972 team, led by a rookie Bill Walton, which won its 30 games by an average score of 95­–64. If you think the major-conference Bruins must’ve done it against tougher competition, it’s not clear you’re right. The ’72 Bruins grade almost exactly on par with the ’21 Zags on Sports Reference’s strength of schedule metric, probably because the rest of the teams in the Pac-8 weren’t much good. Meanwhile, Gonzaga’s West Coast Conference is far from a power league but better than its anonymity suggests, with a strong BYU as the Zags’ No. 2.

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• To that end: Despite playing in a midmajor conference, Gonzaga has played seven games against opponents that enter the week in the top 27 in Ken Pomeroy’s opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics and won six by double digits, the seventh by five points. (Three of those wins were against the WCC’s BYU, while the Zags also made light work of Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa, and Virginia.) Needless to say, that’s a more dominant run against good teams than any other team in the country this year. Skepticism of a nonpower schedule is fair, but this one checks out.

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Pomeroy’s efficiency margin stat, which is normalized for competition level, rates Gonzaga (+38.05 points per game) as the best team since he started tracking that number in 2002. The Massey Composite aggregates 54 computerized ranking systems, and 50 have the Zags on top in 2021. If you believe, as I do, that athletes and coaches get better over the decades, it’s hard to feel confident that any team has played at a scarier level than Gonzaga is playing at right now.

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• I will not lie to you and claim that I stayed up until midnight watching every Gonzaga game, but I can assure you that this bunch is fun to watch. They play at a breakneck pace, make shots from everywhere on the floor, and dispense with their prey quickly. Pomeroy noted that every single Zags game finished in less than two hours. If your bar for greatness comes down to aesthetics, what’s more attractive than finishing games early so that everyone can get a good night’s sleep?

Any time a “greatest team ever” discussion emerges in college sports, the slow pace of integration is worth considering. Wooden was an important force in bringing Black players into the sport, and there were numerous Black players by the time Knight won it all in 1976. But the game’s talent pool was not nearly as inclusive then as now. Gonzaga is playing in an era when far more great players, both domestic and foreign, have access to the American college ranks.

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In this current era, there’s a different source of talent dilution: top players skipping college basketball altogether (as a few did this year to play in the NBA G League) or leaving after a year for the NBA. But that is unlikely to be a more significant loss than the exclusion of nonwhite players for generations, which meant the great teams of the old days were playing both a different and less competitive sport, in addition to one that required fewer tournament victories.

There might be “greatest team ever” candidates that didn’t go undefeated but played in the integrated, expanded tournament era. John Calipari’s 2012 Kentucky team, led by Anthony Davis, might have a case. Same with Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke in 1992, Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV in 1991, or Dean Smith’s UNC in 1982. Comparing teams across eras is difficult to do with any precision, but perhaps we could agree one of those teams has a “best team ever” case (as in, it might win a five-on-five game against 2021 Gonzaga), but the fact that they lost, even once, eliminates them from “greatest team ever” consideration. Nothing could be more fundamental to team greatness than never losing.

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If Gonzaga pulls it off, this will be the greatest team that’s ever done it. Or at least the Zags will have a wider range of ways to make the case than the other teams in this discussion.

That’s not to say they will do it. In fact, they probably won’t, because if the proposition is “the field” or “the favorite” in a 68-team tournament, the 67-team group is the likelier winner. And there are specific obstacles in Gonzaga’s way that haven’t been there for other top overall seeds.

For one thing, the NCAA’s determination to play through a still-uncontrolled pandemic means anyone could test positive (or come into contact with someone who tested positive) for COVID-19 at any time. Positive tests or contact tracing could eliminate Gonzaga from the tournament—Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina A&T all had to pull out of their conference tournaments due to positive COVID tests—or remove a huge chunk of Gonzaga’s roster, to say nothing of the potential for serious illness for players and staff members.

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More mundanely, the tournament’s one-city setup in Indianapolis means the Bulldogs won’t enjoy the pseudo-home-court advantage top seeds normally enjoy during the regional rounds. And West Coast–based Gonzaga would potentially have an advantage that’s greater than most, having the benefit of facing opponents that traveled a far longer way.

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There’s also the possibility the Zags’ outrageously fast pace catches up with them. Their average possession lasts just 14.1 seconds out of a 30-second shot clock, making them the second-speediest team in the country. If they go cold from the field for an extended stretch and their opponent suddenly can’t miss a shot, the Zags could fall into a deeper hole than most teams would in the same situation, because of the high number of possessions. Then again, that would require Gonzaga to miss a lot of shots, which never happens. The Zags lead the nation in effective field goal percentage (61) and have shot better than the national average in every game.

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Charting a path to a Gonzaga loss before the Final Four isn’t easy. The Zags have already played and beaten the second, third, and fourth seeds (Iowa, Kansas, and Virginia) in the West Region. Although each is well coached and could make adjustments based on their prior Gonzaga experiences, none seems like a super-dangerous matchup.

Gonzaga would face bigger challenges if it makes it out of the regional rounds. Four teams (Michigan, Illinois, Baylor, and Houston) outside the West Region enter the tournament with adjusted efficiency margins greater than 30 per game. (Iowa, too, is in this elite group, with the fifth-best adjusted efficiency margin in the country.) That’s a lot more upper-echelon teams than usual—the 2020 season finished with just one squad, Kansas, with an adjusted efficiency margin north of 30. Any of those other top teams, or a merely good one that happens to have a great day, could beat Gonzaga in a one-off, win-or-go-home scenario.

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There’s a reason, though, that Gonzaga will be favored against every team it plays. It’s not just that this team is good; it’s that it’s deeply talented. Gonzaga has been the most consistent team in college basketball in the past two decades. But there’s never been a Zags team like this one. We’ll soon find out if that superlative undersells them. In a few weeks, we might be saying that there’s never been any team, at any school, that can compete with the 2021 Gonzaga Bulldogs.

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