INDIANAPOLIS Gonzaga doesn’t have to beat Baylor to earn a high place in college basketball history.
Championship games understandably carry considerable weight; they are the referees of a season. However, a single result may not be overshadowed or overshadowed, in the case of Gonzaga, an accumulation of 31 wins with an average of 22.4 points. These undefeated Bulldogs are a storybook as they are. The Jesuit School was tucked away in Spokane, Washington, outside the West Coast Conference, a once-brave outfit with the quirky-sounding name that always appeared in the brackets.
Enough of that.
Such a portrait was painted over a long time ago. Courageous? Try Powerhouse Now. Mark Few has built a Goliath of the game. This 2020-21 Zags team, whatever happens Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium, has already been one of the best teams in the men’s college hoops of the past four decades. (Minimum.) With a record of 31-0, fresh off a buzzing win that’s nearing (if not) topping the list of the best games in tournament history, Gonzaga has proven his ranking among the masters.
Another victory does not mean greatness; it will ensure Gonzaga’s immortality.
When the Bulldogs beat Baylor, they become an immortal, legendary team in American sports history. In this case, finishing without a loss has more long-term stamina than winning a championship. We get a champion team every year (despite pandemics). It’s been 45 seasons since a men’s basketball team sat at the table. Should Gonzaga lose – at the hands of the sport’s second-best side – they should still be considered one of the greatest teams ever. Put them next to people like 1991 UNLV, 1999 Duke, and 2015 Kentucky as the best not to win a championship. Those were great teams and are still called that way.
We should do the same with Gonzaga if Baylor become the first team in 36 games to take out the Zags.
The stakes are as big as they could be for a title fight. It is the fifth national title game in men’s history with the two best teams in the preseason poll (the most recent was 2001). It is also the first title game since 2005 with the top two seeds from the selection committee. Gonzaga and Baylor combine two defeats, equal to the least (1957 and 1966) ever by two teams competing in a title match.
Their combined .967 win rate is the highest in a title game. This is a blockbuster.
It’s no shame to lose should Gonzaga fall. True exactly Gonzaga’s rank will be saved for as they win another game. From a data standpoint, they will have a claim as one of the top five teams ever. They are the highest scoring (91.6 points per game) and most efficient (127.2 offensive rating, according to KenPom) team of their sport.
They are also competing in Monday night’s championship game as the most accurate 2-point shooting team in college hoop history (63.9%), and that’s likely to remain true even if Gonzaga is having a bad night.
The fact that Gonzaga doesn’t rely on 3-point firing – it makes a respectable 37% of its tries outside the arc, with a good-non-elite 42nd – is even more impressive. This is not a team stuck in old-time philosophies. The Bulldogs are not allergic to the shooting of 3s. Instead, they have a knack for distribution and how to dodge in the transition. They beat you with lay-ups to the brands of other teams, and use their size, shooting cleverness and surgical execution to cut your soul away.
The split between Gonzaga (38.13) and Baylor (32.38) KenPom’s unbiased adjusted margin of efficiency is 5.75 points. Statistically, this is huge. The previous biggest difference came in 2015, when Kentucky (36.91) was 3.18 points better than Wisconsin (33.72). Even still, Baylor is now comfortably 2.73 points ahead of KenPom at No. 3 Michigan.
Best Custom Efficiency Margin in the KenPom Era
Best Offensive Rating in the KenPom Era
Note: Statistics since KenPom.com started keeping statistics in 1997
This is a coronation that Gonzaga has steadfastly strived for for over half a decade. The program has won more than 30 games five years in a row. It is the only school to make at least the Sweet 16 in six consecutive tournaments, and the 20 wins in those tournaments are the most in the sport. Gonzaga has a winning streak of 35 games, with 27 consecutive double-digit wins this season – the longest streak of its kind in six decades.
The idea that Gonzaga would flutter in a bigger competition is downright false. They rarely get home games against big conference opponents and still win the majority of their games against the big guys. For the past two seasons, GU has been 14-1 against power conference opponents. When Gonzaga leaves, they are an offensive orchestra. Any substitution possession with the ball in the hands of Jalen Suggs is an opera. Drew Timme is footwork maestro around the edge, and Corey Kispert scares every opponent’s coach every time he gets up to let go.
As part of this tournament, we also have individual achievements that are rare. Timme is the third player in the past 25 years to play four consecutive games with 20 or more points on 50% shooting or better. (He joins Zion Williamson in 2019 and Blake Griffin in 2009.) Suggs is the fifth freshman ever with at least 65 points, 25 rebounds, and 25 assists in an NCAA tournament.
Joel Ayayi, who oh-over-the-way had a season-high 22 against UCLA on Saturday, also recorded the first triple-double in program history earlier this season. He is Gonzaga’s fourth best player. The fifth-best player is a potential future NBA Draft pick, Andrew Nembhard, who didn’t even expect to qualify this season but was given a waiver like most others due to COVID-19. Who do we forget? Oh, that’s right: Corey Kispert was a First Team All-American and WCC Player of the Year.
In five years, we’ll look up and maybe we’ll see Gonzaga started five NBA players in a national title game. Few teams can ever boast that.
From a practical point of view, Gonzaga’s road to Monday night should also be viewed within the circumstances of this season. There has never been an NCAA tournament champion who has experienced and participated in the cloud of a pandemic. Changes in daily life around the world had micro and macro effects on the way the basketball season was conducted. Gonzaga doesn’t play as usual schedule inventory (champions over the past 15 years normally log between 38 and 40 games) are offset by the hardships and constraints of the pandemic. If you want to put an asterisk on this year’s champion, that asterisk could only be a bonus as it would reflect the most challenging season in history.
Win or lose Monday night, Gonzaga deserves to be remembered as a great team of all time, at least in modern history. It’s hard to compare them to the veteran-laden legends of the 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s. Of course, which of those teams is locking Suggs up? Who shoots from 3 as well as Kispert? Gonzaga’s size of the first five can match many of the best teams from 30 and 40 years ago. They are 40 minutes away from the eighth unbeaten team to win an NCAA tournament.
A win, and it’s forever. A first loss, and it’s a shame. Be that as it may, Gonzaga 2020-21 is still one of the all-time greats in college basketball history.
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