Four wins. For almost two decades, after putting its name on the map in 1999 as the poster child for the modern Cinderella, that’s what Gonzaga has been chasing.
Just four wins.
In the NCAA Tournament victories are precious cargo, each win weighing 10 tons more than the previous. In the past two decades, no one’s taken on more tonnage than Gonzaga coach Mark Few. Year after year, no matter how good, no matter the seed, no matter how trendy a pick, Gonzaga could not break through. Despite a score’s worth of dominance in the West Coast Conference, the once-endearing small Jesuit school out of Spokane, Washington, became oddly maligned for its inability to win four games.
Now that all ends -- forever.
The top-seeded Bulldogs completed their stalk of the West Regional by throttling No. 11 Xavier on Saturday 83-59. Few, one of the game’s best coaches, has his four wins and his first Final Four showing forthcoming.
Gonzaga, the team rated as the best in college basketball for most of 2017, will head to Phoenix with a realistic chance at winning it all.
Now 36-1, the Bulldogs have made history. Gonzaga getting to the Final Four is a breakthrough for a school that went from low-major to Cinderella to mid-major to top-20 force in less than a 15-year span. The man responsible for that is Few, but his longtime friend and associate head coach Tommy Lloyd also deserves a lot of credit. Few has done this with perspective and grace, taking on heartbreaking tournament losses along the way (2006 to UCLA, 2016 to Syracuse the most grueling) and completely disregarding the criticism from the uninformed.
Nobody in the sport is wired like Few. This tournament will hurt you, but it can change you forever and for the better. Few is building himself a Hall of Fame resume. He has won more than 500 games but likely needed a Final Four to earn a shot at candidacy. Now he has it.
Gonzaga becomes the first team west of the Central Time Zone to make the Final Four in nine years (UCLA in 2008). It will be the first Final Four newcomer since VCU in 2011. These are the plot lines that make Final Fours all the more enjoyable.
It’s also a banner day for the West Coast Conference, which last sent a team to the Final Four in 1957. That was San Francisco, which won the title the previous two years. Gonzaga, which has been the No. 1 team ranked at KenPom for almost two months, is capable of doing now what the Dons did then: win it all.
Saturday’s lopsided affair serves as a passing of the torch: Xavier could become the school regarded as the one in most need of its first Final Four appearance, the best program without a trip to the ultimate weekend in college basketball. If Chris Mack remains at his alma mater in the coming years, the Musketeers will have a terrific shot to make their own history.
With a barrage of 3-pointers (12 for 24) and a pair of monster games from Nigel Williams-Goss (23 points, eight rebounds) and Johnathan Williams (19 points, eight rebounds), the Bulldogs separated from Xavier early. The game was not in doubt in the second half. This was a cathartic exorcism, redemption without drama.
With 53.1 seconds to go, Few got to empty his bench, and then the team really began to celebrate. It all started to soak in. Gonzaga has played basketball since 1908. This is the best team in program history. Gonzaga’s domination Saturday needed not to atone for previous teams, but it served as a statement to all the dingbats who’ve tried to downplay the Gonzaga story.
Every low- and mid-major program in college basketball can now look at Gonzaga and hope to replicate what’s been done in Spokane. Most won’t make it as far, but if you think it’s impossible consider that Gonzaga never made the NCAA Tournament until 1995, hovering in mediocrity for decades until Dan Monson coached GU to an unforgettable run in 1999. The idea, even in 1998, that Gonzaga could be a top-100 program in college basketball, let alone a top-20 one, did not seem remotely possible.
In 1999, the Zags rode a 10-seed thrill ride to the Elite Eight. The Bulldogs fell in the regional final that year to the eventual national champion, Connecticut, which made its own program history. After making their first Final Four, the Huskies went on to capture the program’s first national title. They were led by a longtime coach who elevated a program to the center of the college basketball universe.
Eighteen years later, Gonzaga might repeat UConn’s storyline. Casey Calvary, Jeremy Eaton, Richie Frahm, Matt Santangelo. Those were the guys on that 1999 Elite Eight team. Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski, Josh Perkins, Jordan Mathews -- they complete the circle. Dan Dickau, Blake Stepp, Cory Violette, Ronny Turiaf, Adam Morrison, J.P. Batista, Derek Raivio, Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin, Kelly Olynyk, Kevin Pangos, Domantas Sabonis, Kyle Wiltjer and dozens of others -- they are the circle.
Gonzaga has made the NCAA Tournament 19 years in a row. It’s one of the longest streaks in college basketball history, standing up with Kansas, Michigan State, Arizona, North Carolina and Duke. It used to be that Gonzaga was the exception, but now it has the right to sit at the table with those schools. This Final Four decides that.
With its first Final Four appearance in school history, Gonzaga has nothing left to prove but plenty left to achieve. It’s been a long time coming, but the Bulldogs aren’t done. History has been made, but another win or two could well be coming in Phoenix. Amid all the talk about how great a story Gonzaga is, let’s not forget: This is the best team in college basketball.