The Gonzaga Bulldogs have made every NCAA tournament field since 1999. That’s tied for the sixth-longest streak, only behind legacy programs with shoo-in Hall of Fame coaches. But their appearances have been wrought with disappointment. Gonzaga hasn’t gotten past the Elite Eight, and it’s only even gotten that far twice.
Two Elite Eights and 19 tournament appearances in 19 years is a remarkable achievement for any program. For most teams from mid-major conferences, it’s incomprehensible. The Zags should be rooted on as the ultimate Cinderella. But because they’ve been so reliably good for so long, they don’t get that label. They get the label of the Team That Hasn’t Won The Big One.
I’m picking the Bulldogs to shed that label this spring. It took me a while to get there, for reasons having nothing to do with the team’s tournament past.
This is Mark Few’s best team yet — better than those Adam Morrison-led squads that lost in second rounds and Sweet Sixteens from 2004 to 2006, and better than any of the last few years. Yet the Bulldogs should be viewed skeptically, because their path to 32-1 was miles easier than their path to Phoenix will be.
Their league, the WCC, is only decent. They played three games against tournament teams in conference, and all three were wins against a Saint Mary’s team that Gonzaga clearly matches up excellently against. They played three more out of conference: wins against Florida, Iowa State, and Arizona, all by seven points or fewer.
All of that is impressive, but it doesn’t change that Gonzaga played mediocre to downright bad teams in 27 of its 33 games. There are no obvious weaknesses to this group, but there are areas that might not be as strong as they’ve looked.
Gonzaga’s a brilliant shooting team, for instance, but struggled from the field (relatively speaking) against Arizona and Florida. It didn’t get to the foul line as often as usual against Florida, Iowa State, and Saint Mary’s on one occasion.
The Zags’ statistical profile is glowing, but it will look more ordinary against elite opponents. I’m not picking them to win the tournament because I think they’re as good as they’ve looked all year. I’m picking them because they’re still great even if they’re not, and because Few’s one of the five or six best coaches in the field.
Nigel Williams-Goss has a strong Player of the Year case. Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins will guarantee the Zags have a dominant offensive center on the floor at just about all times. Their inside-out offense is beautiful, with a bunch of capable three-point shooters who fire from deep only when it’s smart. Their team defense was more efficient this season than any team’s except Virginia’s, even adjusted for opponent.
Picking this tournament is a fool’s errand. Gonzaga probably won’t win, objectively, because no team is likelier to win than the rest of the field. But this feels like the Bulldogs’ time to finally cut some nets.
Gonzaga starts its NCAA tournament against South Dakota State on Thursday at 2 p.m. ET. You can watch the game on a variety of streaming services, including Amazon Fire TV, Amazon Fire Tablets, and iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch devices.
Here’s my entire bracket, which you can laugh at later.
You’ll have to believe me when I say I filled it out before Tuesday night’s First Four games. Here’s a printable bracket so you can fill out your own.