A Saturday night stunner in Spokane will reverberate through the weekend, shake up Monday’s polls and have undeniable impact on the complexion of college basketball immediately.
The biggest story in sports now is Gonzaga getting got in a staggering way that nobody predicted. The outcome no one saw coming turned true, out of the blue: Gonzaga lost. Gonzaga lost at home ... by eight points. The Bulldogs, ranked No. 1 in the nation’s polls and placed above all others by every accepted major metric ranking system, had their dream of an undefeated season vanish in shocking fashion, as the they were felled 79-71 to a BYU team that had spent most of this season being an underachiever.
So it’s 29-1, not 30-0. It’s great, not perfect. It’s so very college basketball to have things twist like this.
Going 29-1 is tremendous, but although it is a one-game difference, the idea, the existence, the reality of 29-1 vs. 30-0 is a legacy apart. Gonzaga’s story is not yet done, but what transpired on Saturday night will be a major part of this season no matter how it ends for Mark Few’s team. Whether it loses in the first round of the NCAA tournament or goes on to win the national title, the defeat at the hands of an NIT-bound BYU team will be where Gonzaga’s story pivots. All the water curls from this delta.
To lose in your last regular season game, it’s maddening, made even more befuddling by the fact that Gonzaga was a 20.5-point favorite. The Bulldogs had no business even being in a close game, considering they hadn’t played a close game in more than two months. How different was this game? Mark Few got a technical foul as the second half played itself to uncertainty.
Gonzaga managed to lose after opening up with an 18-2 advantage at the start of the game. What? At the start, it seemed like it was going to be a strut to the end. Then BYU leaned in and forced Gonzaga to play with adroitness, but instead GU tripped. BYU’s Eric Mika picked this game to be the best of his career so far, going for 29 points and 11 rebounds. Saturday night was the first time Gonzaga faced a second-half deficit in 15 games. Some Bulldogs fans were wondering if GU needed a fight before March in order to stay fresh. Well, sure, maybe Gonzaga needed to be punched. BYU bloodied its knuckles before dropping GU to the canvas.
Gonzaga will not be 30-0, it will not forever be established in college basketball’s record books as one of the lucky few to run the regular-season table. BYU waited until its final regular-season game to flash its potential. The was the Cougars team that many thought would prevail most of the season, the group that should have been in the conversation for easy at-large consideration.
If you want to spin that this kind of loss takes the pressure off Gonzaga, go ahead, but I don’t buy it because I don’t think Gonzaga was going to be feeling pressure. I don’t think Few worries about that, and if anything, there is no coach wired better to take a loss like this than Few. I do think having a close game functions as a beneficial tune-up for postseason play. That’s what matters most. Gonzaga could have some fire under its tuccus in the WCCs, but I’m of the belief Gonzaga was/is fated to roll through the league tournament anyway.
Also, for those giddy about this loss, and I know you’re reading this right now, a reminder that Gonzaga is still projected as a 1 seed. The Bulldogs can’t afford to lose another game without dropping off the top line, but at 29-1, it’s still good enough to be in the top foursome. Will Gonzaga stay there? The Pac-12 tournament, Villanova’s finish and whatever North Carolina does or doesn’t do will ultimately decide that.
When Wichita State earned a No. 1 seed in 2014 after going undefeated in the regular season and landing at 34-0 for the start of the NCAA Tournament, I was pretty certain we were witnessing something that wouldn’t happen again for a long time.
It wasn’t just that a team from a smaller league like the Missouri Valley owned both a “0” in the loss column and a “1” next to its name on Selection Sunday. The Shockers were more than binary; they were the best and most arguable story from that season. Wichita State went mainstream because its undefeated run came directly following that surprise Final Four appearance in 2013.
The flawless operation dovetailed with an anniversary, too. It had been exactly 10 years since college basketball had a team in men’s Division I not lose a regular season game (Saint Joseph’s in 2003-04). I enjoyed that Wichita State story because who knew when we’d get another undefeated team in college basketball?
You know how that went. In a cosmic stroke of coincidence, the Kentucky Wildcats -- follow me here: UK eliminated undefeated Wichita State from the NCAAs the year after the Shockers made the only Final Four of the previous five seasons that ironically didn’t include UK -- went on a run of dominance that stacks up with the best regular-season campaigns ever.
The unbeaten torch was unknowingly passed from one team to the next. No one could have seen then, when UK beat WSU in one of the best NCAA Tournament games of the past 10 years, that Gregg Marshall’s lucky dust would rub off so well on John Calipari.
That Wildcats team holds the record for efficiency margin in the KenPom era, meaning it was more dominant on a statistical basis than any other group since 2002. UK got to the Selection Sunday without a loss of course, then reached the Final Four. Ultimately, the biggest carrot in college sports was left dangling as UK was felled by a veteran Wisconsin team.
Amazing, though. College hoops was graced with two consecutive undefeated teams in the NCAA tournament. And we almost got it again. Gonzaga teased college hoops, until 9:22 local time on Saturday night, with the prospect of a third unbeaten team in four seasons.
This might well -- still -- be best group in college basketball. Gonzaga will wake up on Sunday as the top-rated team in many a metric, and in fact their efficiency margin is second best in the KenPom era to only Kentucky of two years ago. So if you’ve found yourself disparaging Gonzaga’s league or downplaying what they’ve done, I wonder, would you rather college hoops have no unbeaten team heading into March? If so, why? Love them or hate them, undefeated Gonzaga would have been a major story, something to boost interest and create worthwhile dialogue. This almost worked out -- pun intended -- perfectly for college hoops.
In losing the way it did, Gonzaga shocked our reality back to form. Having undefeated teams in the modern era, it’s really hard. When we get them, it’s luck. Gonzaga was the perfect team to do it, too. Never made a Final Four, and now a run like this only brings the essence of the program to be hoisted up for us pundits and you fans to celebrate or denigrate.
If you’ve been hellbent on slandering Gonzaga or dismissing Mark Few’s team as a national title contender, you’ve missed the point. College football is the only other major American sport that regularly gets undefeated teams, and even then you have programs like Western Michigan who don’t even have a shot at the title when they run the table. Alabama goes unbeaten prior to playoff play and it barely satiates the expectations of that fan base. With one-third the competition inventory, going undefeated in the regular season isn’t nearly as impressive in football as it is in hoops.
It might be a decade before we see another team reach Feb. 25 without a loss, or maybe it happens next year. Either way, this was almost definitely Mark Few’s only shot to do it.
Now the Bulldogs have to regroup for their league tournament. Let’s remember that this team still rates as the best in college basketball, and one loss only changes two things for Gonzaga: The No. 1 overall seed is now off the table, and immortality is as well. Everything else is still there. Losing a game doesn’t mean Gonzaga should be taken any less seriously as a title contender. If anything,they were never going to win it without at least a loss anyway.