Gonzaga players celebrate after defeating BYU in the West Coast Conference championship game on March 9, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

Gonzaga players celebrate after defeating BYU in the West Coast Conference championship game on March 9, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

Van Til: Gonzaga looks to complete remarkable rise to the top

The rags-to-riches Zags are seeking to become the first undefeated national champion since 1976.

Starting this weekend, the eyes of the American sports world will be fixed on the Gonzaga University men’s basketball team and its quest for perfection.

The star-studded Zags take an unblemished 26-0 record to Indiana, where they enter the NCAA Tournament as the top overall seed and the odds-on favorite to cut down the nets April 5 in Indianapolis.

Gonzaga is seeking to become the eighth undefeated national champion in the NCAA Tournament era — and the first since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. With six more victories in the Hoosier State, the Zags would join college basketball’s elite club of perfection and stamp themselves as one of the sport’s all-time great teams.

Not bad for a small school from Spokane that few had heard of prior to the Bulldogs’ initial Cinderella run just over two decades ago.

At this point, it’s easy to take for granted and become numb to the story of Gonzaga’s remarkable rise. Seemingly every broadcast, commentators mention coach Mark Few’s incredible work in transforming this one-time basketball afterthought from the Inland Northwest into a national powerhouse. As a Gonzaga alum myself, there were times when I probably didn’t fully appreciate how truly unique and special this ascendance has been.

But make no mistake — the Zags’ rags-to-riches journey is nothing short of extraordinary.

ESPN broadcaster Jay Bilas, one of the most prominent media members in college basketball, summed it up well during a game earlier this season.

“It is one of the greatest success stories, I think, in American sports history,” Bilas said.

Prior to 1999, Gonzaga had reached the NCAA Tournament a grand total of once. The program had never been ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 poll. The university was struggling with declining enrollment, increasing deficits and layoffs. At one point, university officials reportedly suggested the school leave Division I athletics and move to a lower level.

Simply put, Gonzaga basketball was light years from national relevancy.

The idea of this comparatively tiny school from eastern Washington one day being mentioned in the same breath as basketball bluebloods like Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina? That would have been downright laughable.

And yet, here we are.

The Zags’ rise began in 1999, when they crashed onto the scene with their magical run to the Elite Eight.

But unlike most college hoops Cinderellas — the George Masons and Florida Gulf Coasts of the world who capture the nation’s attention for a couple of fleeting weeks one March before fading back into obscurity — Gonzaga was no one-hit wonder.

The very next year, the Bulldogs made it back to the Sweet 16 with another underdog run. And the year after that, they did so again.

Those three consecutive Sweet 16 trips laid the foundation for two decades of consistent success. Gonzaga became a March fixture and a household name — a virtual lock to be on the bracket come Selection Sunday. The Bulldogs have the third-longest active NCAA Tournament streak in the nation, with 22 consecutive appearances.

But even as Gonzaga kept churning out trips to the Big Dance, there came a point when it was fair to wonder whether the program had hit a ceiling.

Between 2002 and 2014, the Zags reached the Sweet 16 just twice. In the 15 seasons following that initial 1999 run, they hadn’t made it back to the Elite Eight.

Was Gonzaga a good program that consistently advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but rarely any further? Or could the Zags truly establish themselves as one of the elite programs and compete for a national title?

They’ve answered that question emphatically.

In recent years, Gonzaga basketball has risen to a whole new level. Over the last five NCAA Tournaments, the Zags have made five Sweet 16 appearances, three Elite Eight appearances and a trip to the national championship game in 2017 — when they were two minutes away from beating North Carolina for their first-ever national title.

Gonzaga is the only program in the country to reach each of the last five Sweet 16s. During that span, the Zags are tied for the second-most NCAA Tournament wins with 15. The only program with more is North Carolina with 16.

The most notable difference with these recent Gonzaga squads is the evolution in caliber of talent the program is able to recruit to Spokane. Current NBA players such as Domantas Sabonis, Zach Collins, Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke have come through the Zags’ program in recent years, and they were surrounded by a number of other high-level college players during their time at Gonzaga.

Prior to this season, the two most talented teams in program history were the 2017 national runner-up squad and the 2019 Elite Eight squad that featured eventual first-round NBA draft picks Hachimura and Clarke. Both teams were good enough to win it all.

But as great as those two iterations of the Zags were, Gonzaga has never had a team like this one.

The amount of talent on this year’s team, quite simply, is absurd.

According to NBADraft.net, the Zags have four of the projected top 40 picks in this year’s NBA draft: Freshman phenom Jalen Suggs (No. 3), Edmonds native and sharp-shooting senior Corey Kispert (No. 10), do-everything wing Joel Ayayi (No. 30) and ultra-skilled sophomore post Drew Timme (No. 38).

Kispert, Timme and Suggs each were named AP first-team or second-team All-Americans this week, meaning Gonzaga accounted for three of the top 10 All-American selections.

And on top of that, the Zags have a pair of former top-50 national recruits who have alternated between the fifth starting spot and first player off the bench — Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard and sophomore forward Anton Watson, who was a two-time Class 4A state player of the year at Gonzaga Prep.

Nembhard, who started all 67 games at point guard for Florida the last two seasons, initially wasn’t even supposed to play for the Zags this year due to NCAA transfer rules. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA has been lenient with waivers. Two days before their opener, the Bulldogs got a major gift when the NCAA approved Nembhard’s waiver and made him eligible to play.

Even without Nembhard, this was already set to be the most talented team in program history. With him, the Zags have an embarrassment of riches.

All of this starpower has blended cohesively into Few’s system and formed an absolute juggernaut on the court.

Gonzaga has won all but one game by double digits, with the lone exception being a five-point win over No. 13-ranked West Virginia in a game that Suggs missed part of due to an injury.

The Zags dominated their other three matchups against teams that finished in the top 15 of the AP poll.

They led by as many as 18 points late in a season-opening win over Kansas. They built a 20-point second-half lead in a win over Iowa, despite hardly practicing leading up to the game because of a COVID-19 pause in their program.

And they steamrolled Virginia, cruising to a 33-point second-half lead en route to a 98-point display against the Cavaliers’ vaunted defense. Prior to that, Virginia hadn’t allowed more than 81 points in a non-overtime game in nearly seven years. Gonzaga surpassed the 81-point mark with more than eight minutes still left to play.

The KenPom ratings, considered by many to be the gold standard of college basketball predictive analytics, illustrate how dominant this Gonzaga team is. The Zags currently have a KenPom adjusted efficiency margin of 36.62 — which means they would be expected to outscore the average Division I team by 36.62 points per 100 possessions.

(The KenPom ratings factor in strength of schedule, so they account for the fact Gonzaga plays a weaker conference slate than other top teams.)

Over the 20-year history of the KenPom database, only one team has entered the NCAA Tournament with a higher mark than the Zags’ current rating. That was the 2015 Kentucky squad, which entered at 37.43.

Of course, that star-laden Kentucky team is a reminder of just how tough it is to win it all. The Wildcats were the fourth team since Indiana in 1976 to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated. And like the three previous teams to do so — 1979 Indiana State, 1991 UNLV and 2014 Wichita State — they weren’t able to complete the perfect season.

After all, it’s called March Madness for a reason. The road to a championship is usually an arduous one, filled with potential roadblocks. The single-elimination nature of the tournament leaves little margin for error. And this year’s field is particularly tough, with a trio of other No. 1 seeds in Baylor, Illinois and Michigan that each might’ve been the favorite in another season.

There also are the added challenges of playing this tournament during a pandemic, including the unfortunate reality that one positive COVID-19 test could have the potential to derail a team’s title chances.

But if the Zags can cut down the nets, finish a perfect 32-0 and complete an incredible climb to the top of the college basketball world?

That’d sure be one heck of a chapter to add to this all-time great American sports story.

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