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Gonzaga’s Heartbreak Is Possible Only Due to Its Astonishing Success

It’s not cool to knock the Bulldogs anymore

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

I’ve spent the last few months trying to tell anybody who would listen that this was the best Gonzaga team ever, and perhaps the best team in the country. The Bulldogs had the best defense in the nation, they’d won more games than any previous Gonzaga team; they’d won better games than any previous Gonzaga team; they’d won by more points than any previous Gonzaga team. I heard that I shouldn’t pick the Zags to win the NCAA tournament because the Zags had choked in previous NCAA tournaments; this was an insult to the randomness and stupidity of the NCAA tournaments in which the Zags had lost; it was also an insult to compare those past Gonzaga teams to this Gonzaga team, a transfer-filled behemoth featuring a college All-American in Nigel Williams-Goss, a high school All American in Zach Collins, and an All-Westerosian in Przemek Karnowski.

And they did a pretty damn good job in the title game, which they lost 71–65 to the Tar Heels on Monday. The defense brutalized UNC, forcing a Tar Heels team that doesn’t like to shoot 3s into 27 attempts from beyond the arc, tied for their second-most attempts on the year. (They made four.) Coach Mark Few made a risky decision to put Nigel Williams-Goss on larger UNC star Justin Jackson, but it worked, flustering the Tar Heels’ best player into a 6-of-19 shooting night, 0-of-9 from beyond the arc. The Zags were the fifth team all season to out-rebound the Tar Heels. If you could have told these stats to Gonzaga fans before tipoff, they’d start tearing down Spokane right then.

But when Gonzaga had the ball, it couldn’t capitalize on the chaos. Williams-Goss, perhaps tired from the strain of guarding Jackson, had one of his worst games of the season, scoring just 15 points on 17 shots. He shot only 4-for-8 from the free throw line, after hitting those shots at nearly a 90 percent rate during the season. The Zags’ strength was their interior play, but Przemek Karnowski went 1-for-8 with four turnovers and Zach Collins picked up his fourth foul early in second half, forcing him to sit for much of the game. He fouled out. The Zags’ best performance of the night came from Josh Perkins, who scored 13 points in the first half — and none in the second. It was the fifth-worst offensive performance of UNC’s season — but Gonzaga’s worst.

In the end, Gonzaga fell six points short of college hoops’ ultimate title. They were down one before a botched call and a late-game scramble went UNC’s way. A few Williams-Goss free throws, one less uncharacteristically poor play from Karnowski, one shot in the second half by Perkins, and Gonzaga could have won.

Even as Gonzaga reached the national championship game, many people had no idea who or what a Gonzaga is. Bloggers could make decent money Monday night just explaining that Gonzaga was a mid-sized Catholic school in Eastern Washington, and there were plenty of people on Twitter who thought the school was called Gorgonzola. That joke was funny the first time I’d ever heard it — at this point, it’s kinda cheesy.

Meanwhile, to college basketball fans, “Gonzaga” has had so many meanings. We came to know the team as a stunning Cinderella when it made the Elite Eight in 1999. Then the Zags succeeded so consistently, with an 18-year-long string of NCAA tournament appearances, that we got used to them as a mid-major powerhouse. But then we got so familiar with them making the tournament that we started criticizing them for not going further in the tournament.

I love Gonzaga, because it’s this strange thing that could exist only in college basketball, a team that spends half of its time hanging 50-point wins on Pacific and Santa Clara and half its time competing with and beating the sport’s best teams.

For Gonzaga to win the title would have been an assurance of what every college basketball fan holds dear: that anybody can win this dumb thing. Gonzaga rose from nothing to this peak — yes, they had John Stockton, but the Bulldogs never made the NCAA tournament until 1995, 11 years after he graduated. Now, 22 years later, we’re talking about their first championship appearance like we’re surprised it didn’t happen earlier. They did this in a wildly unconventional way: exceptional skill at recruiting international players; acquisition of top-tier transfers; and an incredible coach who has stuck with his school over those with deeper pockets for so many years now that other teams have basically stopped trying to land him.

Unfortunately, I get the sense not a lot of people love Gonzaga. It’s nice to root for an unknown when it’s winning a game or two in March Madness, but when the Zags became a consistent contender, they became something to deride. Fans of major schools could reinforce their own self-worth by insisting that a school from a littler league couldn’t actually be any good.

This year, Gonzaga disproved that in ways it hadn’t before. The Zags started the season 29–0, their best regular season ever. Of course, people ignored that due to their conference. (Never mind how viciously they won those games, or that they had six wins over NCAA tournament teams.) They shed their reputation as a team incapable of succeeding in March, finally making the Final Four — in fact, they made the championship game! — and, of course, people argued that the Zags didn’t play any top-level opponents along the way. (Not having to play top-level opponents is a thing that sometimes happens when you earn a no. 1 seed. You are the top-level opponent.)

Then Gonzaga lost in the national championship game. Sure, it came close, and outplayed North Carolina for stretches, but it lost. Instead of a trophy, the Zags came away from this tourney with new knocks against them. From here on out, it won’t be considered noteworthy unless they finish a season undefeated. They’re no longer the team that’s never made the Final Four, but they are now a team that’s never won a championship.

They might not be capable of quickly returning. While the team’s best player, Williams-Goss, will be a senior next year, they’ll lose Karnowski as well as Jordan Mathews, the team’s best shooter. But perhaps a bigger problem is the potential departure of Collins, who played his way into potential one-and-done status and might leave Gonzaga for the NBA draft. It’s one thing to land an international prospect like Karnowski and spend five years developing him into a human-bear hybrid who passes like he’s on the Showtime Lakers, but that’s a thing Gonzaga has done before. Recruiting players like Collins — the second five-star recruit in school history, and the first McDonald’s All American — isn’t.

But take a second to reflect on Gonzaga. It’s a team with no history of success that plays in a league with few other successful teams. Nobody can find it on a map, and it’s frequently confused with cheese. Now the worst thing anybody can say about the Zags is that they have never reached the highest pinnacle of the sport. It’ll be an awfully tough giant for them to slay going forward, but it’s also a testament to just how many dead giants are buried in Gonzaga’s backyard.