clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Gonzaga Outgrew Its Crystal Slipper. Now It’s the Best Program in College Hoops.

Once seen as a lovable underdog, Gonzaga has transformed into college basketball’s model program. Is this the NCAA tournament the Zags finally win it all?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s March, which means flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and America is united in its distrust of the Gonzaga Bulldogs. The Zags are the top-ranked team in men’s college basketball and the no. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. They’re a perfect 26-0, the first team to complete an undefeated regular season since Kentucky in 2015. And they’re hoping to become the first undefeated men’s Division I national champion since 1976.

But this is Gonzaga, the Cinderella that outgrew its crystal slippers. Year after year, the Bulldogs demolish their West Coast Conference competition only to lose in the NCAA tournament. We have come to ignore their gaudy records as ersatz, no matter how convincingly they beat up on Pepperdine, Pacific, and Portland. Twenty years ago, Gonzaga was seen as the lovable underdog, a school you’d never heard of that sounded vaguely like a type of cheese. When the Zags pulled off a string of stunning March Madness upsets over higher seeds from bigger conferences, we celebrated them. Now, many fans take satisfied smirks when Gonzaga loses to teams with lower seeds from bigger conferences, knowing the Zags have once again been exposed as phonies. The Ringer has published pieces explaining why people should take Gonzaga seriously instead of expecting it to lose in the tournament in 2017 (twice) and 2019. We’re doing it again here in 2021.

In recent years, Gonzaga has transformed—again. During the 2000s, Gonzaga went from being a good mid-major program to one that routinely dominated its small conference. Over the past five years, the Zags have leveled up to legitimate powerhouse status. Since 2016, they’ve made the Sweet 16 in every men’s NCAA tournament (with two Elite Eight trips and a berth in the 2017 national championship game). They have also produced first-round picks in three of the past five NBA drafts.

This season, the Zags are better than ever—and just about as close to a perfect college basketball team as is possible. They have the school’s best recruit and best pro prospect ever, guard Jalen Suggs, who opened his Gonzaga career by throwing down an alley-oop over the reigning national defensive player of the year less than a minute into his first college game. They have another projected lottery pick in forward Corey Kispert, who is perhaps the best shooter in college basketball. They are the first team to have three players—Suggs, Kispert, and big man Drew Timme—on the list of 15 finalists for the Wooden Award, given to the most outstanding player in the nation. Timme and wing Joel Ayayi could also get drafted in 2021, although they’re unlikely to go in the first round.

Gonzaga’s 26-0 record includes 25 wins by double-digit margins and 16 wins by more than 20 points. It hasn’t just beaten up on the WCC, either: It went 5-0 against opponents from power conferences, with a 23-point win over ACC regular-season champion Virginia and double-digit victories over both Kansas and Iowa.

College basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy gives the Zags a 34.4 percent chance to win the NCAA tournament. That may sound small—it means there is a 65.6 percent chance that they lose—but it’s actually massive. By comparison, KenPom gave Virginia a 21.4 percent chance in 2019. In 2018 no team cracked 20 percent; in 2016, nobody cracked 16 percent. In this model, the Kentucky team that entered the tournament at 34-0 had a 33.8 percent chance of cutting down the nets. Gonzaga’s probability is higher.

Statistician Bart Torvik gives the Zags a 33.3 percent chance of winning it all, the second-highest percentage ever in his database, which dates back to 2000. The only team more likely to win the tournament than Gonzaga in 2021 was Duke in 2001, at 35.1 percent. That Blue Devils team started five future NBA players and romped to a championship.

Simply put, this season’s Zags are one of the best college basketball teams ever. And they are not merely great—they’re also a joy to watch. They are virtually perfect on both offense and defense, and play at an unrelenting, breakneck pace. They get out on the fast break, posting the third-fastest tempo in college hoops. With great speed and efficiency, they became the first team since 2008 to average 90 points per game. On defense, they often play a full-court press and force turnovers. This style throttles small-school competition and works against the big guys, who aren’t used to facing a team so aggressive. The Bulldogs hung 102 points on Kansas, 99 points on Iowa, and 98 points on famously low-tempo, defense-first Virginia.

Of course, March Madness is a single-elimination basketball tournament played by teenagers, meaning the odds remain high that the Zags will lose a game. If they do, it will seemingly serve as evidence that you can safely bet against Gonzaga come March. But even if the Bulldogs fall short again—and I’m betting that they won’t—they’ll still have accomplished something incredible. They’ve already proved that a school from outside of the sport’s seemingly static power structure can build the best program in the nation.

For the most part, college basketball’s apex predators were decided eons ago. The sport’s most iconic moments have come when an outsider plays deep into March Madness—like George Mason in 2006, or Butler in 2010 and 2011, or Loyola-Chicago in 2018. Those names remain so memorable because their successes are so rare. To even appreciate the concept of the Cinderella, you have to accept that this sport is ruled by a few elite schools, whose top-tier status was determined before the grandparents of any active players were born. For instance, James Naismith invented basketball in 1891 and later went on to coach at Kansas. The Jayhawks are still a national title contender in most seasons.

Gonzaga, a small Catholic school in Spokane, Washington, is not a historic contender. The Zags weren’t even a member of the NCAA until the late 1950s, and didn’t make the tournament for the first time until 1995. Even when John Stockton played for the program in the 1980s, it didn’t come close to sniffing the tourney. When the Bulldogs made their run to the Elite Eight in 1999—prompting Gus Johnson to holler “THE SLIPPER STILLLLLLL FITS!”—they were an all-time underdog story.

But they turned those tourney runs into a springboard, and soon began to dominate their league. The WCC isn’t a bad conference by any means; it has plenty of schools with rich basketball traditions, like Saint Mary’s, Loyola-Marymount, and more recently BYU. Yet it isn’t perceived as a conference for elite teams; after Gonzaga made that Elite Eight run in 1999, head coach Dan Monson left for Minnesota, which is a typical jump for a coach who achieves success at a mid-major school.

In retrospect, Monson’s departure turned out to be a real Brian Dunkleman move. Mark Few, who initially started working at Gonzaga as a graduate assistant in 1989 and has never worked anywhere else, stepped in to replace him. Few has never shown any interest in coaching elsewhere. Instead of leaving for a college basketball powerhouse that could pay him more money, he simply turned Gonzaga into a college basketball powerhouse that could pay him more money.

The Bulldogs went on to win the WCC’s regular-season title 11 years in a row. After a blip in 2011-12 (when Matthew Dellavedova led Saint Mary’s to the league title) the Zags have now won another nine straight. They’ve won the conference 20 times in 21 years, and made 22 straight NCAA tournaments. They are 80-3 in WCC play since the 2016-17 season.

The teams that turned Gonzaga into a WCC powerhouse were characterized by players who were lightly recruited and had defined ceilings as NBA role players. The school produced just three first-round NBA draft picks in the 2000s: Dan Dickau, Adam Morrison, and Austin Daye. Morrison sums up the whole era—he was unheralded coming out of high school, but played so well at Gonzaga that Michael Jordan thought it would be wise for Charlotte to take him with the no. 3 pick in the 2006 NBA draft. It quickly became apparent that Morrison was not an NBA-quality talent. Most Gonzaga teams were built on the backs of players who were neither top-tier recruits nor successful NBA players, but whose college careers were still memorable: J.P. Batista, Derek Raivio, Robert Sacre, Kevin Pangos, Nigel Williams-Goss, and Przemek Karnowski.

Now Gonzaga produces a first-round pick virtually every year. Domantas Sabonis, drafted no. 11 in 2016, became the first Zags player to earn an NBA All-Star nod since Stockton. Zach Collins became the program’s first one-and-done player in 2017, as well as its first top-10 pick since Morrison. In 2019, two Gonzaga players were taken in the same first round for the first time, with Rui Hachimura going ninth and Brandon Clarke going 21st.

When a program has players drafted in the first round every year, top recruits show up, realizing that this school can lead them to a pro payday. Take Suggs, who could have played anywhere in the country—he even had some high-major offers to play quarterback, after becoming the first high schooler ever to be named Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball and Mr. Football in the same year. But when he was deciding whether to play professionally overseas or play for the Zags, he decided that a year spent under Few would be better for him in the long run. Led by Suggs, the 2020 Gonzaga recruiting class was the best in school history. Eleven of the top 12 scorers on this Zags roster were ranked as four- or five-star recruits by 247Sports. The program may never take a three-star prospect again.

It might seem like Gonzaga is benefitting from a strange year in college hoops. Some of the best players in the 2020 recruiting class bypassed college entirely to play in the G League. Duke and Kentucky missed out on the NCAA tournament for the first time in forever; other powerhouses like Kansas and Michigan State are having down years as well. But maybe Gonzaga isn’t simply benefiting from the shortcomings of the traditional blue bloods. With star prospects like Suggs picking them over these schools, the Zags are also contributing to the changing power dynamic of the sport.

I think this is Gonzaga’s year. Even if it’s not, though, it’ll be back in the mix next year. The Bulldogs are considered the heavy favorites to land Suggs’s high school teammate, Chet Holmgren, the consensus top prospect in the 2021 class and a 7-footer with elite shooting and ballhandling skills who plays basketball differently than anyone you’ve ever seen. Gonzaga will continue to compete with the Kentuckys, Kansases, and Dukes of the world to sign the best prospects in the sport.

The great thing about the NCAA tournament is that sometimes the best teams lose. That’s what made Gonzaga famous, as it kept going deep into March as a double-digit seed. But while most schools are happy to have one run like that, Gonzaga decided it wanted multiple shining moments. It capitalized and became the exact type of program that it once toppled. It’s successfully transformed from a school you’ve never heard of to a school everybody knows. Even if the Zags lose this March, they’ve already won.