Gonzaga -- the best story in college basketball -- is two games away from completing the first undefeated regular season in program history. When it happens, the Bulldogs will need three wins in the West Coast Conference tournament to become the 20th team in the history of men’s Division I basketball to enter the NCAAs with a zero in the loss column.
What we know: Gonzaga is extremely good.
What we also know: Being undefeated isn’t what it used to be.
Since the 1975-76 Indiana national championship team, five schools have made it to where Gonzaga is now, going 28 for 28 to start the season. None of those five who started 28-0 won the national title. That Bob Knight-coached crew from ‘76 has reached mythical status. Will we ever again see a team go from start to finish without losing a game? The 2014-15 Kentucky team made us believe -- really believe -- until we couldn’t an ymore. The Wildcats were demonstrably dominant, but even then UK couldn’t pull it off, losing convincingly to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
The good news for Gonzaga: Four of five reaching 28-0 since 1976 made the Final Four. Gonzaga has never made a Final Four. If Mark Few’s team can do that, the misguided they-don’t-do-anything-in-March label would be shed. As it stands, Gonzaga is rightfully ranked first in the polls and by most metrics. In my estimation, the Zags have an Elite Eight floor and are right there with Kansas, Villanova, North Carolina or anyone on the short list of title favorites.
Look how much better Gonzaga is on a points-per-possession differential basis than anyone else. This is empirical data:
Now let’s take a look at the history that will serve as backdrop for the Bulldogs as they turn to March and aim for immortality.
The Zags have a chance to join 2012 Kentucky, 2014 Florida and 2015 Kentucky as the only No. 1 overall seeds in NCAA Tournament history to enter without a loss in league play (the No. 1 overall concept was introduced in 2004). All three made the Final Four, with Kentucky winning it all.
It will be interesting to see if Gonzaga gets respect from Vegas oddsmakers. The three aforementioned teams were the odds-on pick to win the title. If Kansas, Villanova and/or Duke win their conference tournaments, I get the sense Gonzaga won’t be the odds-on choice. This despite the fact that Gonzaga has won 20 straight by at least 10 points, something we haven’t seen at any level in more than 25 years.
Looking back at some of the truly dominant regular-season teams over the past near-30 years, it bodes well for Gonzaga that behemoths like UNLV in 1991 and Kentucky in 2015 broke through to the final weekend. Even tremendous squads who just missed going unbeaten, like Duke in 1999 or Kentucky in 1996, made the Final Four.
It’s important to keep in mind that the NCAA Tournament remains a glorious crapshoot. There is no evidence to suggest that if you’re on a double-digit win streak going in that you’re more likely to reach the Final Four. If Gonzaga can do it, it will be because this team maintains the level of play it’s established over the previous 30-plus games. And if it doesn’t, that’s OK, too. Off nights happen, and really good teams find their way into the Sweet 16 and beyond. It’s hard to make a Final Four. Never forget that.
Of the previous 19 undefeated teams in NCAA Tournament play, seven won the national title. The 1985 bracket expansion to 64 is a key distinction, too. Also, if Gonzaga makes the title game, only two then-undefeated teams have lost in the last game of the season (Ohio State in 1960 and Larry Bird’s 1978-79 Indiana State team).
The seven who finished undefeated
1. 1955-56 San Francisco Dons (25-0): As you can see, Gonzaga already has more wins than one of the all-time best teams, a functioning of scheduling. The Dons, who had Bill Russell (27 points, 26 rebounds in the national title game) got past UCLA, Utah, SMU and Iowa in the tournament, all by double digits. In winning the championship, USF was riding a 55-game winning streak. Unthinkable today.
2. 1956-57 North Carolina Tar Heels (32-0): College basketball’s landscape was so different in those days. This team beat Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in the national title game, a 54-53 triple-OT final (Virginia approves). UNC went through Yale, Canisius, Syracuse and Michigan State beforehand.
3. 1963-64 UCLA Bruins (30-0): The first UCLA team to win a national title and the first of many legendary John Wooden-coached groups. This one had Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich. UCLA eventually won 38 straight NCAA Tournament games. This team started that streak. The Bruins beat Seattle, San Francisco, Kansas State and Duke.
4. 1966-67 UCLA Bruins (30-0): With sophomore Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), the Bruins wrecked teams and established the dynasty. UCLA beat Wyoming, Pacific, Houston, and then Dayton in the title game. Wooden on his way to being recognized as the sport’s greatest coach. I often wonder what it was like to experience college hoops in the 1960s.
5. 1971-72 UCLA Bruins (30-0): Many historians of the game regard this team, which had Bill Walton as a sophomore, as the best in college hoops history. The Bruins’ win margin -- an outrageous 32-point average -- is something not even Gonzaga can comprehend. By this point, UCLA was rightfully considered the best program ever, as the team defeated Weber State, Long Beach State, Louisville and Florida State en route to a sixth straight national title.
6. 1972-73 UCLA Bruins (30-0): In those days, the tournament was only 25 teams deep. While that made for an interesting, shallow field, it also omitted a handful of legitimately good teams from participating. It’s the one thing you could hold up against UCLA and say, “Yeah, the run is insanely good, but you weren’t faced with a bracket nearly as difficult or deep as any team post 1980.” This was the UCLA team that had Bill Walton make 21 of 22 field goals in the title game over Memphis State. The Bruins also beat Arizona State, San Francisco and Indiana in the NCAAs.
7. 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers (32-0): The Hoosiers got through a 32-team field, knocking off St. John’s, Alabama, Marquette, UCLA (always loved that this team pushed past the Bruins) and then Michigan in the title game. They are to college basketball what the ‘72 Dolphins are to the NFL. A legacy that hasn’t been matched.
Since ’76, things haven’t gone as smoothly. Before I get to the modern era, here are the teams who went undefeated but lost in the NCAAs in the olden age.
- Columbia (1950-51): Lost in first round/Sweet 16.
- Ohio State (1960-61): Lost in overtime in national title game.
- Houston (1967-68): Lost in Final Four.
- St. Bonaventure (1967-68): Lost in second round/Sweet 16.
- Marquette (1970-71): Lost in second round/Sweet 16.
- Penn (1970-71): Lost in Elite Eight.
- Indiana (1974-75): Lost in Elite Eight.
- Rutgers (1975-76): Lost in Final Four.
- Indiana State (1978-79): Lost in national title game.
In the modern era, this is who Gonzaga should be compared to, in a practical sense. Four teams that got through their regular season schedule without demise.
1990-91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (34-1): Infamously fell in the Final Four to revenge-minded Duke, which collected Mike Krzyzewski’s first national championship. In many ways, that UNLV team is the closest parallel to this year’s Gonzaga team. UNLV was in the Great West. It rolled over opponents and had future pros. Obviously that team had better future pros, more swagger and had won the title the previous season. But I think it’s the closest team to what Gonzaga is this season.
2003-04 St Joseph’s Hawks (30-2): Finished the regular season at 27-0, then got stomped by 20 in the quarterfinals of the A-10 tourney by Xavier. So St. Joe’s didn’t enter the NCAAs undefeated, but it did earn a 1 seed, was really good, and played one of the best regional final games of the past 15 years, that epic vs. No. 2 Oklahoma State. Jameer Nelson, Delonte West and Pat Carroll ran the show.
2013-14 Wichita State Shockers (35-1): The Shockers had three future NBA players on their team: Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. They rolled through the Missouri Valley, though they did get a couple of close-call wins. Ultimately, the Shockers’ season is looked back on well -- and with a bittersweet tinge. The committee did Wichita State no favors by placing an eighth-seeded Kentucky team in their first-weekend quadrant. Kentucky reached the national title game, but the story of college hoops’ history now includes Wichita State’s undefeated campaign to a 1 seed.
2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats (38-1): The most dominant team in efficiency margin in the 16-season history of KenPom.com (this season’s Gonzaga is second, a testament to the Bulldogs’ legitimacy). The Wildcats ran into the one team who provided the most difficult matchup issues for them: talented, experienced, quirky Wisconsin. And so the first 40-0 season was stopped short. That UK team had Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, the Harrison twins and Trey Lyles. It was almost robotically dominant and on the short list of the best teams to never win a title.
If Gonzaga gets to the Dance without a slip-up, it’s going to be stacked up against all the aforementioned teams. In the modern era of the tournament, every team except Wichita State -- which was beaten by a blueblood loaded with NBA picks -- made it to at least the Elite Eight. History isn’t kind to Gonzaga in ultimate terms. You don’t go wire to wire in college basketball anymore. But we have seen that going unbeaten in the regular season lends itself to a deep run in the NCAAs almost every time. If you want a barometer for Gonzaga this season, the Elite Eight is a reasonable expectation, a Final Four would make sense, a national title game appearance would be forever memorable, and a championship would conclude one of the best sports stories of the decade.