On the eve of 2021’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament, I boarded the Gonzaga Bulldogs bandwagon, elbowed my way as far toward the front as I could, and attempted to commandeer the car from the conductor. In these pages, I wrote something titled “Gonzaga Could Become the Greatest Men’s College Basketball Team Ever.” The premise was sound: Gonzaga had not lost a game all year, had advanced stats that outstripped everyone else for as long as those have been collected, and was poised to walk a longer postseason path than any of the sport’s undefeated national champions before them. It was fair to place them behind some of John Wooden’s great UCLA teams, but the Zags had their own case.
The idea came up 40 minutes short. Baylor played Gonzaga in the title game, and it turned out the Bears lifted more weights. They turned the Zags to ash in an 86-70 bullying that was even more lopsided than the score looked. It caused a real complication for my preferred narrative of Gonzaga’s historic excellence. It also ended a 23rd-straight season of Gonzaga doing more or less the same thing: being varying degrees of great, making the tournament, and losing painstakingly. (That span counts 2020, when we all lost painstakingly. Gonzaga would have been a No. 1 seed in that year’s tournament, which became a canary in the COVID coal mine and was canceled.) On the court, no Gonzaga loss was as rough as what Baylor handed it that night in Indianapolis.
What did Gonzaga do in response? The same thing it does every year: It reloaded. Five-star freshman guard Jalen Suggs became an early NBA draft pick, as did senior wing Corey Kispert, a long-term project who embodied the way Gonzaga develops players. To fill the production gap, Gonzaga got another five-star freshman, 7-foot center Chet Holmgren, who will follow suit to the top end of the NBA lottery later this spring. The Zags have been adept at finding good transfer fits for years, and they found one in former Iowa State and Penn State guard Rasir Bolton, who joined another former transfer, ex-Florida guard Andrew Nembhard, in the backcourt. Drew Timme, now one of the more productive big men of this college era, came back for his junior year. This year’s Gonzaga has three losses, all to quality tournament teams (Duke, Alabama, and Saint Mary’s), so it will not draw the historic proclamations of 2021. But the team still rules. It’s No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency metric, No. 1 in favored NCAA evaluation tool NET, and—most importantly—the No. 1 overall seed yet again.
The time has come. The 2022 tournament is Gonzaga’s moment. And if it is not, I will rewrite this argument every March until it really is Gonzaga’s time. But I will not have to do that, because this time is it. Gonzaga is going to get over the hump.
There is a facile law-of-averages case for the Zags, of course. It says that being elite year after year means you will eventually be elite for long enough that everything will work out. That doesn’t always hold up, in basketball or any other sport. But it’s got a pretty good recent track record in a bunch of them. Virginia endured a string of brutal losses to lower seeds, then the most brutal loss as a No. 1 seed to the lowest seed in tournament history, the 16th-seeded UMBC Retrievers, before winning March Madness in 2019. The Tampa Bay Lightning were one of the NHL’s elite teams for years but regularly found themselves stymied in the playoffs. The last postseason series they lost was a four-game sweep to their conference’s lowest-seeded team in 2019. Since then, they have won eight series in a row and two Stanley Cups. The Los Angeles Dodgers finally won a World Series in 2020 after seven straight playoff exits. The Chicago Sky crammed six playoff Ls into eight years before topping the WNBA last year. Georgia just won football’s national championship for the first time since 1980, as its “have better players than everyone else” strategy paid off at last.
A lot of these winners-turned-bigger winners didn’t change that much. UVA didn’t stop playing its slow-paced brand of offense or its maddening, effective pack-line defense between losing to UMBC and winning the whole thing the next year. The Lightning didn’t fire their coach to get more out of their star players. The Dodgers didn’t stop handing the ball to Clayton Kershaw.
There are enough counterexamples of teams that never got it right, of course. Gonzaga could just as easily become a more famous version of Jamie Dixon’s 2000s and early-2010s Pitt teams that fell apart (earlier) in the tournament every year and never cashed in. But Gonzaga is really good—rather than a scrappy upstart. The Zags did not require a big formulaic change to repeat as the best team heading into the tournament. They have been good for this entire century, and head coach Mark Few has settled into a distinct offensive pattern the last few years: Gonzaga will move like lightning. Their average possession length is 14.5 seconds, per Pomeroy’s data, fastest in the country for the third time in five years. They’ll move the ball around in a symphony, and while they’ve got some lights-out shooters, they butter their bread by working it inside to Timme and Holmgren, who collectively average 31 points and 16 rebounds. Nembhard is a slasher, too, and like Suggs last year, he is a worthy quarterback of the always-active Gonzaga transition game. Holmgren, who looks at first glance to weigh about 160 pounds, is a unicorn who can do almost whatever he wants at this level.
There’s no longer any need to argue about whether Gonzaga can hack it with the sport’s traditional blue-bloods. They’ve played enough of them over the years, and their West Coast Conference has gotten strong enough of late, that the skeptical comparisons don’t come up as much as they used to. But the absence of doubt isn’t enough. At this point, Gonzaga should be recognized as one of the two or three most reliably elite teams in the men’s game, a freshly emerged blue-blood that avoids the weird down seasons Duke, Kentucky, and North Carolina have from time to time. (The traditional power that most mimics Gonzaga’s ceaseless winning is Kansas, though Duke’s lone missed tournament in recent times was in a bizarre 2021 season.)
Gonzaga will never have the recruiting brand power of those schools, but it has plenty for its purposes anyway, as it’s now an annual event for the program to add players those schools actually want—Holmgren being the latest. Gonzaga has also spent decades finding relatively unheralded players all over the world and helping them become the best versions of themselves. (Nembhard, a Canadian, is this year’s international star.)
Gonzaga still develops all its players, and helps them max themselves out. The best example this year might be Bolton, the transfer guard whose 3-point percentages at Iowa State and Penn State hovered in the mid-30s. This year, he’s clicking at 47 percent. No roster-building strategy is out of Gonzaga’s wheelhouse, and the result is that unusual consistency year over year. The last time the Bulldogs finished outside the top 10 in adjusted efficiency margin was in 2016, and in the other years in that span, they have usually been first or second. They’ve touched No. 1 in the AP Poll in five of the past six seasons—so often that it’s not even notable to see a WCC team there anymore.
In short, Gonzaga has more bullets in its chamber than anyone else in men’s college basketball. That this will eventually go in their favor is inevitable. 2022 is as ripe a time as any, even as Baylor lurks as a No. 1 seed again and the top seed lines in the field have a handful of teams that look title-worthy. Gonzaga’s excellence has combined with its stunning record of postseason sadness to give all of us a gift: the chance to fill out a bracket and look mildly contrarian while doing nothing more than picking the best team to win. Seize it!