INDIANAPOLIS — As the halftime clock wound down with under a minute to go and Gonzaga’s players were milling about on the court and preparing for the second half, Jalen Suggs snuck behind Omar Ballo and intentionally bumped into his teammate.
The 7-foot, 260-pound Ballo turned around, wondering who was looking for trouble. He looked down to see Suggs mean-mugging for a split-second, then let loose a playful smile. The teammates cracked a quick laugh and went arms-over-shoulders into the team huddle. The moment was quick — you’d miss it if you weren’t looking — but something so simple can sometimes reveal deeper truths.
This Gonzaga team is not only great, it’s close and it is borderline unstoppable. The Bulldogs’ comradeship and tight bond is representative of an overarching culture that Mark Few has nurtured for more than two two decades. GU’s casual 85-66 annihilation of USC put the Bulldogs two wins away from sports history. Two more wins and this team will be one for the ages.
That major plot line leads our eight storylines to know as we ramp up to the final weekend of the season. Consider this your first lookahead — and cheat sheet — about the biggest stories and sidebars leading up to Saturday’s doubleheader.
Gonzaga, UCLA, Baylor and Houston are in the Final Four. Listen to the newest Eye on College Basketball episode to prepare for the final weekend of the season.
1. Undefeated Gonzaga is two wins away from immortality
This one lords over all the others below it. Gonzaga (30-0) winning a national championship with an undefeated record would transcend college basketball. The only major American sport that sees undefeated teams win national titles with any kind of semi-regularity is college football. The Zags pulling it off would be something special, all the more because of how Gonzaga has evolved and the league (WCC) it still plays in. UNLV (1990) is the last team to win a national championship from outside the power-conference structure. Of all the schools to be the one to finally repeat what was last done in 1976, if it’s to be Gonzaga, that will be poetic and also appealing. No other sport could give you a story like this.
An undefeated Gonzaga would be a distinctly alluring achievement only college basketball is capable of providing.
There is also something appropriate about Gonzaga needing to knock off UCLA in order to make a national title game and try to complete an undefeated season. Old hoops royalty vs. the most modern of programs (and King of the West) for more than a decade running. If Gonzaga is going to match the John Wooden’s unbeaten accomplishments of yesteryear, it’s going to need to go through Wooden’s program to do it. Fitting.
2. The Zags are ready to avenge Adam Morrison — again
In 2006, Gonzaga blew a 17-point lead in the West regional semifinals against UCLA. It’s one of the most frustrating choke jobs I’ve ever seen in college basketball. (And I rarely use that descriptor for a college team.) UCLA stunned the Bulldogs at a time when Gonzaga was cresting as a nationally viable program with National Player of the Year Adam Morrison. The vision of Morrison crying on the court after the loss is one of the indelible images of the past 20 years in college hoops.
It could have knocked Gonzaga down. Instead, the opposite happened.
Fast-forward 15 years and Gonzaga’s a top-10 program while UCLA is picking up steam after a jagged past decade. These teams met in the 2015 Sweet 16 (Gonzaga won), but any time these two meet in the postseason it’s going to always harken back to ’06. Saturday’s Final Four matchup between the Bruins and Bulldogs pits plucky UCLA as a 14-point dog, the largest in the history of the Final Four. If I know Morrison, he’ll be in the house. Don’t anticipate this one will end in Gonzaga tears — though UCLA has thrived on being the underdog four of the past five games.
3. Almost everyone wants Gonzaga-Baylor
All respect to Houston and UCLA for getting this far, but those who’ve followed college basketball from the beginning of this COVID-addled season know that the Zags and Bears were both ranked and regarded as a tier above the rest of the sport for the first 75% of the regular season. Then most of Baylor’s roster contracted the virus, it went on pause for 23 days, and while it’s taken a while, the Bears are just about back at the level we saw them at in December and January.
Gonzaga, meantime, has ascended to a tier all its own. The stats back that up: GU’s efficiency margin at KenPom sits at +38.82. The end-of-season record is 2014-15 Kentucky (+36.91), which of course lost in the national semifinals to Wisconsin — its first defeat of the season.
One more subplot: Gonzaga and Baylor were supposed to play each other in early December. Mark Few and Scott Drew arranged the game in the late summer, only to have it canceled when Gonzaga’s COVID issues prompted the game to be called off two hours before tip. Both teams have traveled distinctly different roads, but GU-BU for the 2021 natty would be the most appropriate and deserved ending to this season.
4. The Battle for Texas
It’s the first time in Final Four history Texas has two representatives. The programs have a lot in common and a lot not. Both have ended decades-long Final Four droughts: Houston 35 years, Baylor 71. Houston was a premier program from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s. Then it fell into irrelevance and disrepair for the better part of three decades.
Baylor? It was a non-entity in men’s basketball for almost the entire second half of the 20th century. The early years of the 21st century brought the worst scandal in men’s college basketball ever.
Now both programs are appropriately representing Texas after the state sent a record-tying seven schools to the NCAA Tournament. Will the Cougars fully restore their roar, or will the Bears win one more and help fulfill the Gonzaga-Baylor prophecy? The last team from Texas to win it all was in 1966 (Texas Western).
5. Jalen Suggs’ chance at No. 1 in NBA Draft
While Drew Timme won Most Outstanding Player in the West Region, Gonzaga’s freshman point guard is the team’s top draft prospect and is the element that has elevated the Zags to a level they’ve never been prior. Suggs is a pulp fiction novel in transition and generally someone who you can’t take your eyes off whenever the ball is in his hands. Fresh off an 18/10/8 game, Suggs is averaging 12.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists in 30.5 minutes in the bracket. The numbers aren’t outrageous, but Suggs’ penchant for eye-popping plays is. Can he leapfrog Cade Cunningham for No. 1 status in the 2021 NBA Draft? Holding those averages while leading Gonzaga to its first national championship could only up that debate.
6. Kelvin Sampson’s road back from exile to the Final Four
For a deep read on this, my column after Houston’s win is a broad view at who Sampson is, what got him out of college basketball, how he made it back in and why it had to be done at a school like Houston. Sampson’s first Final Four trip came in 2002 with Oklahoma. Now 65 years old, Sampson will have a moment on the big stage that revalidates him among the best coaches in the sport. Many of his contemporaries would list him among the top 10-15 tacticians in the game. That whiteboard reputation will go from an in-the-business acknowledgement to a national recognition thanks to revitalizing and completely overhauling UH.
Sampson is no true redemption story, but the complicated layers to his past make his journey that much more interesting. In 2008, the idea he would ever get back to this point was unthinkable.
7. The Pac-12 dream tournament is alive
The Pac-12 has gone 13-4 in this tournament and covered almost every game against the spread. It’s been a phenomenal March for the Conference of Champions. Even getting a team to the Final Four is cause for celebration out West, as the league doesn’t get a team onto the big stage annually. UCLA’s party-crash marks just the sixth time since 2000 that a Pac-12/Pac-10 team has made it this far.
The 2021 NCAA Tournament will ultimately be remembered for three things: 1) Gonzaga either winning it all or losing just shy of making history 2) Being the most upset-riddled tournament ever (we are at 14 and counting in light of UCLA pulling it off Tuesday evening) and 3) the revival of the Pac-12. That flag is still waving, courtesy of UCLA.
The Pac-12’s run has profited the league more money off NCAA Tournament units than any ever before, and this could signal — could — a change in direction for the league in the next half-decade. Gotta figure Bill Walton is going to make his way into the Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday, right?
8. A once-in-a-lifetime tourney experience comes to an end
I can write with firsthand experience that the coronavirus and all of its danger and threats still loom over Indianapolis and this tournament. Do not keep that out of mind. Only one game has been canceled between both the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments to this point. Six games total remain between the two. There are five days remaining to get this challenging season behind us, but we’re not through it yet. Every morning brings reason for cautious optimism. This tournament has been as challenging logistically as anything that has been done in the sporting realm anywhere in the world since the pandemic hit. When it’s all over, everyone will finally be able to breathe a sigh of relief. But we’re not there yet, and until the tournament ends, COVID-19 is still the most important story attached to this tournament, even if it’s the least joyous and most unwanted.
Can we make it five more days without any more disruptions? Let’s hope the chaos is left to the court and nowhere else.
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