Gonzaga is finally over the hump. In their 19th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, the most consistent mid-major program in the country made its first Final Four in school history with a 83–59 win over Xavier on Saturday. Gonzaga was the little school that could when Mark Few took over as the head coach in 1999, but they’ve long since become a Goliath that regularly churns out NBA players and expects to compete for national championships. Except they never really have. Gonzaga is now judged by the same standards as blue-blood programs like Arizona and UCLA, but their inability to string together four wins in a row come March has been hanging over the program for the last decade.
A lot has to go right for a school to make the Final Four. This season’s group is by far the most talented team that Few has ever assembled at Gonzaga, but they also benefited from a relatively easy path to Phoenix. The Bulldogs faced a 16-seed (South Dakota State) in the first round, outlasted an 8-seed making its first tournament appearance in school history (Northwestern) in the second, survived a tough challenge from the 4-seed (West Virginia) in the Sweet 16, and then rolled over an 11-seed (Xavier) who had made an unlikely run to the Elite Eight. If you hang around long enough and keep putting yourself in a position to succeed, the ball will eventually bounce your way.
Xavier is a great mid-major program in its own right, but Chris Mack’s team was completely outmanned on Saturday. The four best frontcourt players in this game — Przemek Karnowski, Johnathan Williams, Zach Collins, and Killian Tillie — all played for Gonzaga. They were bigger, faster, and more skilled than the Xavier big men, and the only way the Musketeers could hang with them was to pack the paint and dare the Bulldogs to beat them from long range. Which Few’s team did. Repeatedly. Gonzaga shot 12-of-24 from 3, and that was the difference in the game. The less talented team has to give up something on defense, and Gonzaga could take whatever the Xavier defense gave them.
The story of Xavier’s remarkable run to the Elite Eight was their zone defense, which conceded open shots on the perimeter in order to wall off the paint against teams from Power Five conferences stocked with NBA-caliber athletes. In their second-round loss to Xavier, Florida State shot 4-of-21 from 3 (19 percent). In their Sweet 16 loss, Arizona shot 7-of-27 (25.9 percent). Florida State (Jonathan Isaac) and Arizona (Lauri Markkanen) each had a future NBA lottery pick on their roster, the same as Gonzaga (Collins), but they didn’t have enough shooting on their roster to complement them. It doesn’t matter how much talent you have upfront if you can’t spread the floor, take care of the ball, and run good offensive sets.
A college basketball head coach is as much general manager as coach, and the majority of their work happens before the game even begins. Few may not be as good at X’s and O’s and in-game adjustments as Mack, but the quality of his roster means he doesn’t have to. Karnowski and Collins were in foul trouble on Saturday, but that didn’t matter because he could bring in a third skilled and athletic 6-foot-10 player (Tillie) off the bench. Trevon Bluiett has been one of the best players in the tourney this season, but Few had an answer in Williams, a hyper-athletic 6-foot-9 forward with the length and athleticism to stay in front of Bluiett and still contest his shot. Gonzaga has all the hallmarks of a well-coached team: The eight players in their rotation have skill sets that complement each other, and they all understand their roles and what they are supposed to be doing on each side of the ball.
Which is not to say the Bulldogs don’t have weaknesses. They struggled with West Virginia’s ferocious full-court defense on Thursday, and it appears the best way to guard them is to press up in their ball handlers’ dribble and force them to create off the bounce and make plays on the move, not sit back in a zone and let them walk into open 3-pointers. That might be an issue in a potential Final Four matchup with either Florida or South Carolina, both of whom have waves of athletic defenders who can play elite perimeter defense, recover, then contest shots in the paint, but that’s an issue for next weekend.
For now, Few and Gonzaga can celebrate the next step in a process that has been a lifetime in the making. Zach Collins was an infant in 1999, when Richie Frahm, Matt Santangelo, and Casey Calvary engineered an unlikely run to the Elite Eight as a 10-seed before losing to UConn, the 1-seed in their region. Eighteen seasons later, Gonzaga was finally able to take the next step as a program now that the shoe was on the other foot and they were the 1-seed stocked with NBA prospects up and down their roster. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Gonzaga.