GLENDALE, Ariz. -- So here we are on the doorstep of the season’s end, and what a great gift to close out the campaign. The 2017 NCAA Tournament has given us one of the most appealing title games ever.
Sure, Oregon’s Final Four run was a fun, unexpected bonus. No question that seventh-seeded South Carolina’s swoop to Phoenix will go down as one of the best four-game streaks in tournament history. But Heels vs. Zags is the final most outside of Oregon and South Carolina wanted. Whether you embrace or resist the idea of Gonzaga being great, you’ll be sure to watch -- because who knows when we’ll get this distinct kind of championship again.
I bet this stat surprises you: Heels-Zags provides just the eighth instance in tournament history that a title game is a 1-seed vs. 1-seed.
It’s not just that Gonzaga has finally gotten here, but that the Bulldogs made the final while rating as the best, most consistent team in the sport most of the season. The longstanding thought was that if Gonzaga broke through, it wouldn’t do it as arguably the best team in the sport. It would overachieve, outplay its seed line and live up to the ideal of Gonzaga-as-underdog. But that’s not what’s happened.
This factor has been the most overlooked aspect of Gonzaga’s trek to the 2017 championship game. The program is so respected and established at this point, the fact it garners 1-seed status is no longer a surprise. And that’s, in a small way, its own surprise.
Still, the idea of “Gonzaga: college basketball national champion” is a concept difficult to grasp for the majority. Traditionally glamorous North Carolina is the Vegas favorite -- yet Gonzaga is forecast to win the game per computer models. It’s unusual to get that kind of split in a matchup so big. We’ve got conflict with betting markets and proven empirical models. Fun!
UNC opened up as a two-point favorite. KenPom.com has Gonzaga winning by four. That six-point swing between Vegas and KenPom is one of the most drastic of any tournament game I can ever recall. It speaks to the general public’s skepticism of Gonzaga in a big game against college basketball royalty.
And, as always, the Gonzaga faders have been out in force. I’m still amazed but the fact that a long-since-proven, top-20 program has developed an antagonistic faction of doubters over the years, but here we are. In recent days, the cynics have been citing GU’s allegedly facile Final Four voyage.
Their road has been too easy!
Yes, in terms of aggregate seeding (Gonzaga’s total number for seeds faced in this Dance: 46), GU’s road to Monday night has been the fourth-easiest in the 64/68-team tournament era. North Carolina last year, ironically, also had a total of 46 by the time it made the title game. You remember anyone trying to chop down the Heels then? No. Because it didn’t happen.
Gonzaga can’t control which teams it faces. The bracket breaks however it breaks. Gonzaga can only control how it performs, and to this point the Bulldogs have averaged 73.2 points, held opponents to 61.8, maintained their standing as the best defensive team in college basketball and proven -- three times in the past five games -- that they can win close games.
Remember when that was a purported concern? Gonzaga blowing out West Coast Conference opponents for two months had people speculating if the Bulldogs would seize up in a squeeze situation late in a game against a legitimate opponent. Now they’re one victory away from tying the all-time mark for wins in a season with 38. Those wins have come against Florida, Iowa State, Arizona, Saint Mary’s, Northwestern, West Virginia, Xavier and South Carolina. This has not only been earned, it’s been magnificent. If it was so easy to win 37 games in a season you’d see a lot more teams do it.
You know how many teams have ever won 37 games? Nine.
“Yeah I think with Gonzaga we are always going to hear that such because everybody thinks our conference is weak,” Zags freshman Zach Collins said in the locker room Sunday. “We have heard it all year. It is nice to get to this national championship game finally and silence the doubters a little bit. But, what we’ve done all season is kept in this locker room and not worried about what people say and we’re going to continue to do that.”
And think about how close Gonzaga was to getting here with an undefeated record. That home loss to BYU on the last game of Gonzaga’s regular-season schedule was a blip, not an omen. That’s been an under-discussed element heading into the last game of the season, right?
This final has a fun dichotomy, and it’s why I think the ratings are going to be outstanding. UNC doesn’t have nearly as good a defense, took on six more losses than Gonzaga and it almost choked that game against Oregon. North Carolina didn’t score a field goal in the final five and a half minutes vs. the Ducks yet still won. That is an aberration among aberrations, considering a team has no business winning in the Final Four by going so cold so late, then missing four foul shots in the final six seconds and still getting out as victor.
But here it is. North Carolina is a top-three program in college basketball history. The Tar Heels are playing in their 11th title game, second-most to UCLA. The last time we saw a title game wherein a blueblood with five or more national titles was going up against a program that had never won one: 2006. Florida beat UCLA that year. Gonzaga now has more appeal than Florida then for a lot of obvious reasons (and that’s nothing against Florida).
Plus, UNC’s plot line of making consecutive title games and being able to push back to the finish this year after falling at the buzzer last season? It’s building to a haunting or historic outcome either way. Either the Tar Heels find fulfillment or they take the silver two years straight. There are 10 men in Carolina Blue on this year’s roster who got hit with Villanova’s streamers and confetti last year, 10 guys who had to watch Kris Jenkins, Ryan Arcidiacono and all those Wildcats celebrate while they shuffled off on the wrong end of the best finish in NCAA Tournament history.
You can make the case that UNC getting back here is a comeback story of its own accord. If the Heels win, they’ll become just the fourth team ever to take the title a year after losing in the championship game.
The starkness isn’t as David-and-Goliath as someone would have you believe, but the opposite-coast institutions do have their heavy differences. As a university, UNC has 47 NCAA titles. Gonzaga has never won an NCAA championship in any sport. And the Bulldogs aren’t just playing for school pride: The state of Washington hasn’t had a team in the title game since Seattle in 1958, and the West Coast Conference hasn’t had a team in the title game since San Francisco 1956.
UNC is 60-11 all time as a No. 1 seed. Gonzaga is 6-1.
This is for Gonzaga, but it’s also for the Pacific Northwest and for smaller conferences everywhere. We waited 18 years to see Gonzaga get to a Final Four. That Elite Eight run (coincidentally ending in Phoenix in 1999) put Gonzaga “on the map,” as the cliche goes. The sport’s atlas was charted differently in the decade following, as tournament appearances went from happy accomplishments to expected endgames. Now that Gonzaga is in the title game, the program has obviously been changed forever. Mark Few spent 18 seasons turning the Bulldogs into a top-20 program, a viable “national entity” as he put it Sunday.
Regardless of outcome, Monday night’s title game already feels like a win-win for the sport. Nineteen years worth of consecutive NCAA Tournament bids for Gonzaga can’t bring as much validity as one national title. A championship is forever. A championship alters the Gonzaga story in such a triumphant way. College basketball has been waiting decades to have a story this good. The only one bigger would be UNC finding a way to win the way Villanova did last season.