Two of the last four NCAA Tournament champions went through Gonzaga to cut down the nets. As wild and unpredictable as this silly sport is -- especially during the madness of March -- a month from now in New Orleans it might become three of the last five.
Or maybe, just maybe, this time it will be the Bulldogs propping up ladders and snipping down nylon. Just maybe this year could be the Year of the Zags. (Maybe.)
The Bulldogs (26-3) are the betting favorite to take the crown this season at +375 according to Caesars Sportsbook. Being favored to win the title is not an unfamiliar spot for this dynamo program out of the WCC. A season ago, Gonzaga coach Mark Few's squad was undefeated entering the Big Dance before falling to Baylor in the title game, snapping a perfect season at the last possible moment.
In 2016-17, the Bulldogs were 32-1 entering the tournament before a crushing loss to North Carolina in the title game. They've got a knack for being great in the regular season and developed -- unfairly -- a reputation of not being able to get over the hump.
But this season feels different. And guess what: the numbers suggest this year might indeed be different as well.
So long as we're talking maybes, the possibility that this Gonzaga team is better than the two that finished as national runner-ups is well within the realm of possibilities. Its scoring margin through 28 games? 22.8 points -- 1.5 better than last year. Its adjusted efficiency margin at KenPom.com? 32.66 -- 3.82 lower than last year, yet still a wider margin this year (5.21) than the next-best team compared to last year's nearly undefeated squad. The last team to have at least a 5.0 edge at the top over the second-best team was Ohio State in 2010-11 -- which was a Buckeyes team that went 34-3 on the season but fizzled out in the Sweet 16 to eventual national runner-up Kentucky.
Metrics, schmetrics, you might say, and look: I hear you. At some point, Gonzaga not winning a championship sticks reputationally, fair or not. But this program has given itself a chance more often than not to be in the mix. Eventually if you get enough bites at the apple you find the core. Keep winning at a high level with elite talent and pushing for the chip, and things will eventually break right.
The roster this season is capable of doing what previous iterations has not been able to accomplish, hence my overwhelming optimism that a dominant regular season and stellar metrics could translate to a chip and crush the curses of old. Drew Timme has the best footwork among bigs in the game going. Andrew Nembhard has the experience and playmaking chops to run the show and can be an alpha when necessary, like in Tuesday night's WCC title game where he finished with 19 points and seven assists vs. the Gaels. Julian Strawther is a rising NBA talent who can consistently splash 3-pointers and pressure the rim.
And oh, by the way, Chet Holmgren, the team's leading scorer and the sport's fourth-leading shot-blocker, is a prospect and player unlike any we've ever seen, capable of snatching both shots and souls on the hardwood with his gangly arms and 7-foot-1 frame.
Pop just about every metric into the computers -- KenPom, Bart Torvik, scoring margin, efficiency margin -- and it's most likely coming up Gonzaga as we head into the 2022 NCAA Tournament. Sure, numbers are numbers and ultimately they're meaningless in March -- even if they're informative and often predictive. But the Zags are zipping into the Big Dance as winners of 19 of their last 20. March is their month, momentum is at their sails, and the maybes, well, they're feeling a little more hopeful sprinkled with some caution. They haven't closed the deal in two title game appearances since 2017 but this team, the best in college basketball all season, has a chance to rewrite narratives of old about this steady-as-always program.