Staff writer Tommy Conmy:
Before the 2020-2021 Gonzaga men’s basketball team was anointed as the best team coach Mark Few has ever led, the 2019-2020 team held that subjective title before their chance to prove themselves evaporated as the country fell into a pandemic.
This iteration of the Zags boasts impressive depth not often seen at the college basketball level. Not only did the five-person All-WCC team include four Zags, but Drew Timme and Corey Kispert were among the 15 candidates on the Wooden Award watch list that annually is awarded to college basketball’s top player.
Before being inserted into the starting lineup, guard Andrew Nembhard came off the bench a year removed from starting for a University of Florida team that made the NCAA tournament. The Zags can bring out a lineup that features five players with a legitimate chance at playing in the NBA in the near future.
This talent coupled with a canceled 2019-2020 postseason that was likely to see the Zags as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament has created a pressure cooker of expectations inside the McCarthey Athletic Center.
National prognosticators and college basketball pundits have ranted and raved about the Bulldogs all year long as they’ve defended their perch atop the AP rankings. Despite playing a grueling non-conference schedule to start the season, some question the validity of this Zags team.
The Zags didn’t do themselves any favors in dispelling these notions by limping to the finish line of the regular season after playing sloppy opening halves against Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara.
Expectations officially ran rampant after Baylor lost to the University of Kansas following a break in play due to COVID-19 concerns within the program. That loss left the Zags as the last undefeated team.
Corralling expectations is like trying to reign in a bull in a china shop —nearly impossible. The legacy left by this Zags team will be defined by many “ifs” in the coming weeks.
If the Zags play their conference tournament and win all three games, they will be undefeated going into the loser-go-home NCAA tournament.
If the Zags fall before the national championship game to a lower-seeded opponent, college basketball fans across the country will hem and haw that the program in Spokane is a nice story, but they can’t get it done when it matters.
If the Zags emerge victorious from the national championship game on April 5, they will not be celebrated like a true champion, rather denoted as the team that was supposed to win due to their ranking and talented roster.
There are no "ifs," "ands" or "buts" about it. If Few is unable to get the job done with this team, the critics will look past his career 623 wins and his unmatched program building abilities that are without comparison. Instead, critics will focus on the fact that GU has yet to win a national championship.
Only 12 different programs have won the national championship since the Zags began their ascension in 2000. Winning at any level of sports is difficult. Couple that with a March Madness postseason tournament and the odds of success drop precipitously.
For Zag fans across the nation, their fingers are tightly crossed that this year is finally the year for Few. If not, they’ll have to endure yet another year of abrasive talking heads denouncing their university.
Staff writer Zach Walls:
Championship or bust.
It’s a phrase that would get you cut off at Jack & Dan's if you applied it to a Gonzaga University squad five years ago. A phrase that is reserved for the five-star-loaded, Calipari-led Kentucky squads of the last decade. A phrase slapped by ESPN onto the “Big 3” Duke squad containing Zion Williamson, RJ Barret and Cam Reddish. A phrase that implies any result short of a national title is a failure of a season.
A phrase that does not apply to the 2020-21 Zags.
To say a championship is the only way for this special team to be remembered is a byproduct of recent success. Zag fans are not far removed from five straight years of no Sweet Sixteen. From names like Steph Curry, Fred VanVleet and Jimmer Fredette ending the Zags’ dance before the song could even reach the chorus.
This team held a laundry list of achievements prior to the springing forward of clocks. First undefeated regular season in school history. First undefeated regular season in Division I men’s college basketball since 2015. First team to be ranked No. 1 for the entire regular season since 2015.
The Zags beat No. 3 Iowa by 11. They beat No. 6 Kansas by 12. They were a layup short of the century mark against a ranked Virginia squad.
Even sans a national championship, this Zags squad will go down as one of college basketball’s greatest.
This is not me saying I hope the natty doesn’t come back to Spokane. That’s sacrilege on this campus. A national title would be the silver-lining in the stress-induced, anxiety-packed COVID senior year I have experienced alongside about 1,000 of my peers.
What I’m arguing is that 2021 does not contain GU’s best chance at a national title, just our best chance yet.
Yes, we are privileged that Jalen Suggs graced us with his mandatory one-year pre-NBA stardom. But, while he’s on track to be the first five-star, one-and-done in school history, we may have two more en route next season if 247’s crystal balls are to be believed. One of whom knows Suggs quite well.
This GU team is the best college basketball team I have ever seen. But, if the linear progression of the program over the last 22 years is to continue, the best GU basketball days could still be ahead. One day, reaching a time where the championship-or-bust slipper will finally fit on this former Cinderella’s foot.