Gonzaga's nightmare title game shows difficulty in going undefeated

Pete Thamel
·6-min read

INDIANAPOLIS – Gonzaga coach Mark Few walked off the floor for the second time in his career as the losing coach in the national title game on Monday. He’s now officially the best active coach in college basketball to never win an NCAA title. (You could make a good bar argument for West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, but he’s never made it to Monday night.)

After Gonzaga’s heartbreak in 2017 in a foul-plagued game against UNC, these Zags weren’t in Monday night’s title game for a dribble. Baylor won 86-70, and no one would have blinked if that was 96-70 or 106-70 considering the game’s tenor.

This wasn’t an instance of Gonzaga collapsing under the pressure of being undefeated, as it entered the game on the cusp of becoming the first team in 45 years to complete a season without a loss. But it is a reminder of how hard it is to go undefeated in college basketball, as there’s typically 30-something regular season games, a league tournament and six neutral-floor NCAA tests.

Gonzaga joins a list of famous also-rans the past four decades that defied gravity by going undefeated for months only to fall in the NCAA tournament — Kentucky in 2015, Wichita State in 2014, UNLV in 1991 and Larry Bird’s Indiana State in 1979.

On this night, it was clear who deserved to be the champion. Baylor bullied Gonzaga, building leads as large as 20 and only leading in the second half by single digits for 26 seconds. “We haven’t played like that this year,” Few said. “They busted us out of anything we could possibly do on offense.”

So to be clear, this wasn’t a flop, choke or meltdown. The Zags certainly didn’t meet the moment, but it was Baylor’s aggression that dictated the result more than Gonzaga shrinking under the lights. “Us being undefeated or us having lost eight games,” Gonzaga senior Corey Kispert said, “it wouldn't have mattered.”

Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs (L), Corey Kispert, Andrew Nembhard and Drew Timme react after losing the national championship game on Monday. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs (L), Corey Kispert, Andrew Nembhard and Drew Timme react after losing the national championship game on Monday. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

The story of the 2021 title game was a superior team beating one that just ended up being merely excellent. Could you question Gonzaga’s readiness because they faced half as many ranked foes prior to Monday night? Sure. Could you wonder whether their legs were a bit heavy after needing overtime and a miracle to beat UCLA? Of course. Would our expectations have been re-set if these teams match up on Dec. 5, as they were scheduled, and Baylor delivered a similar beatdown? Obviously.

But Gonzaga ultimately got mowed down by Baylor, not the expectations, history or ghosts. (The road of UNLV and Kentucky also ended here in Indianapolis, so perhaps some local spirits are guarding the 1976 Hoosiers.) “I never felt like we played with that weight all year,” Few said about the undefeated pressure. “I always felt like we were the aggressor and we ... just ran into a team tonight that was the aggressor, clearly.”

Few is close friends with Baylor coach Scott Drew, even partnering with him in pickleball in the bubble to get some exercise and humble-bragging that the duo never lost. At least one undefeated streak stood.

Few handled the postgame with the class that we’ve come to expect out of him, as he’s quickly becoming one of the game’s defining faces with the sport’s old guard either having retired (Roy Williams) or close to it (Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino, Bob Huggins).

“They deserve all the credit,” Few said after the game. “They were terrific. And, quite frankly, they were terrific this whole weekend here at the Final Four. They were just on it … they were definitely hitting on all strides.”

Gonzaga lives in a weird existence in the sport. They have reached 22 straight NCAA tournaments and have been for most of the past decade the most elite team on the West Coast. In an era where no western team has won a title since Arizona in 1997, Gonzaga is still the next logical candidate to follow. It'll always enter the tournament with questions about how much its league, the WCC, truly tests them.

But hang around long enough in college basketball, and the coaches labeled as the ones who can’t win the big one usually do. That was Williams before he went to North Carolina, Boeheim before Carmelo Anthony hit campus and Bill Self before the Mario Chalmers’ moonshot. Gary Williams, Billy Donovan and John Calipari all took plenty of NCAA haymakers and endured that special strain of March heartbreak before breaking through over the last 20 years.

The NCAA tournament has never been the most reliable test of greatness, more a carnival game of chance where if you load up with enough rings — great players and high seeds — you’ll eventually fit one around the milk carton and win the oversized stuffed animal.

Baylor players and coaches celebrate after the championship game against Gonzaga in the NCAA title game on Monday. (AP)
Baylor players and coaches celebrate after the championship game against Gonzaga in the NCAA title game on Monday. (AP)

For Few, another chance will come next season. He has a verbal commitment from the highest-ranked recruit in school history – wing Hunter Sallis from Omaha – and is expected to get one from the No. 1 player in the country, 7-footer Chet Holmgren.

Any Gonzaga fans depressed from the performance Monday night can quickly change their mood by putting some Holmgren highlights on YouTube. Kispert is out of eligibility, resplendent point guard Jalen Suggs is off to the NBA lottery and the widespread expectation is that sophomore forward Drew Timme will leave as well. (Timme may have lost some money Monday, however, after getting exposed in spots as slow-footed on defense and overwhelmed in the paint.)

It turned out on Monday night that the Zags weren’t the balletic juggernaut we had positioned them as they chased perfection this season.

They played a beautiful game until they ran into a buzzsaw. It turned out that they could get switched defensively into a blender off mismatches and swallowed whole on offense by a superior team’s length and athleticism. Baylor simultaneously took away Gonzaga’s air space with a suffocating defense and spread them apart to allow one of the sport’s best-ever three-guard lineups – Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell — to expose them defensively.

Some years, the very best team in the sport does win the NCAA tournament. And that happened this year. The tournament is ultimately determined by matchups, and this was a poor one for the Zags. History tells us that they’ll get a better bounce of karma in the future.

Gonzaga’s national title is going to happen before too long. It'll have a handful more rings to toss at the milk carton next season.

Sooner than later, one will land on Few’s finger.

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