If you’re a Gonzaga fan, you probably won’t agree. But it’s better this way. Best to be blown out and leave no doubt about the worthiness of the NCAA men’s tourney national champions. Really, you don’t want to lose to the Baylor Bears on a 40-foot buzzer-beater, and fill spring and summer with lamentations and recriminations about glory snatched away at the pinnacle moment.
Said coach Mark Few after the 86-70 blistering Monday night in Indianapolis, the Bulldogs’ first defeat of the season in their last game: “They beat us in every facet.” Clean. Clear. Clinical. A little less definitive was the reason why. Since the cultural training of players and coaches is to offer no excuses, they will not help with the truth.
So let’s posit this: Anyone familiar with basic human psychology and physiology understands that the Zags spent themselves Saturday. The spellbinding 93-90 overtime triumph over UCLA in the semifinals gassed the Zags. Evidence for the claim is clear in two items from Monday’s box score: Offensive rebounding: Baylor 14, Gonzaga 1. Three-point shooting: Baylor 10-for-23, Gonzaga 5-for-17 (Notably, the Bears hit their first five and Gonzaga never recovered).
Those parts of the game are mostly about legs and energy. The Zags Monday had none for either task.
Every NCAA tourney has the standard day off between games. And every coach who wins the first one in a demanding manner knows the perils of the quick turnaround against a presumably better opponent. But almost none of those coaches experienced the high-level, high-stakes tautness of Saturday’s game for the ages, and the subsequent jubilation. Who among the Zags slept Saturday night, or for that matter, Sunday? By contrast, Baylor in the other semifinal practically had a walk-over against Houston — which had the good bracket fortune of beating four double-digit seeds — that was in no way taxing beyond a normal game.
But even with time to refocus, the Zags still would have lost. At least Zags’ Corey Kispert, the sharpshooter from Edmonds who didn’t have a great Final Four, acknowledged the disparity of approach. “They were more aggressive rebounding, they were more aggressive on defense, and the more aggressive team usually wins,” he said. “They punched us in the mouth right from the get-go. It took a long time for us to kind of recover, and start playing them even again. But then it was too late. They just literally busted us out of anything we could possibly do on offense.”
Then there was the burden of maintaining the undefeated season, which burden, of course, was always denied.
For at least half of the season when it was plain that this might be Gonzaga’s best team, every story the players read about themselves included the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, the seventh and most recent team, at 31-0, to go undefeated. That team included future NBAers Scott May, Kent Benson, Tom Abernethy, Quinn Buckner and former Sonic Bobby Wilkerson. (On the bench was a skinny freshman guard who scored 35 points in 17 games, then transferred to Duke. Bob Bender went on to coach the Washington Huskies from 1993-2002.)
The Zags have one solid NBA player in Jalen Suggs. Kispert and Drew Timme will probably get some bench time for a few seasons, followed by careers in Europe or Asia. While the Zags have been a brilliant team, they were beaten by better, fresher athletes who were all about playing the chip of disrespect that could not be claimed by Gonzaga.
Said Few: “We were No. 1 in July, and stayed there.” The upshot was the nation’s best offense was held to a season low in points. It was an exercise in power and energy. As Bears coach Scott Drew offered from the post-game stage after receiving the championship trophy, he pointed over his shoulder and said, “If you’re going to war, I’m taking these guys.” He’s probably right. If COVID-19 hadn’t shut down the previous season, an argument could be made that Baylor would have won its second title in a row Monday night.
As for the Zags, as in 2017, they were denied the championship in the season’s final game. Gonzaga is the fifth team to enter the tourney undefeated and not win it all. After 22 consecutive tourney appearances, they remain a title oh-fer.
As is the state of Washington, despite having four colleges at least reach the semifinals. After a Washington State team reached the national semis in 1941 and lost, the University of Washington made it in 1953 behind 6-7 center Bob Houbregs, who averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds a game. The Huskies advanced to the semifinals of a 22-team field in Kansas City, and were routed 79-53 by defending national champion Kansas. Coach Phog Allen’s Jayhawks knew Houbregs was the NCAA player of the year, got him in early foul trouble, and the Huskies never recovered.
Five years later, different school and player, same tactic. Seattle University rode the enormous talents of future NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor to the national final in Louisville. Despite a rib injury and suspicious early foul trouble, Baylor had 25 points and 19 rebounds, but the Chieftains lost to Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats, 84-72. And Suggs Monday was on the Zags bench inside the first three minutes with his second personal. Not saying there’s any conspiracy, but coincidences can be cruel.
After a time for fly-fishing and turning down other job offers, Few will be back with his shoulder leveraged under the rock, ready for another roll up the hill. It’s not much consolation for him, but ESPN reported that Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill already has posted the Bulldogs as top betting favorite to win the 2022 title.
All Few needs to do is figure out how to save the Zags’ best for last.
Art Thiel is a founder of SportspressNW.com, where this article first appeared.