What college basketball needs right now: fans in the stands coaches out on the recruiting trail, watching five-star prospects and undiscovered gems at the Nike Peach Jam, and teams traveling to play road games without fear they’ll be called off because of contact tracing. Hopefully the sport will be able to return to all of these essential elements very soon.
What college basketball does not need, ever: college football’s galling elitism.
The NCAA Tournament is an egalitarian enterprise. For all the carping about how mid-major programs do not get a fair deal, they are guaranteed each year roughly one-third of the field — one-third of the opportunities to compete for a national championship. Some, such as the Loyola Ramblers in 2018, advance extremely near to claiming that title. The Gonzaga Bulldogs came so close so often and invested so much in pursuing excellence they were able to outgrow the mid-major label.
For all they accomplish, though, there still are some willing to destroy logic in the attempt to shove them back into that category.
MORE: Baylor reminds Gonzaga of how tough it is to win it — and them — all
The Zags continue to compete in the West Coast Conference. They have won or shared its regular-season championship in 20 of the past 21 seasons. They have not missed an NCAA Tournament since 1998.
And if that was where it all stopped — entering the tournament, going home quickly — perhaps there would be a case that remaining as a WCC member is an impediment that cannot be overcome. The Zags still were alive in March Madness 2021, though, as it steamrolled into April for the Final Four.
They still were alive at 9:18 p.m. Monday, carrying a perfect record into tipoff of the NCAA championship game. It was the second time since 2017 they got that far in the tournament. They came close to winning the title in 2017, a one-point game against North Carolina with 50 seconds remaining turning into a six-point Tar Heels victory. The Zags were beaten soundly, this time, by an extraordinary Baylor team that performed at the peak of its game.
A lot of people watched what occurred and came to this conclusion: Playing in the WCC didn’t prepare the Zags for the tournament. They weren’t battle-tested. That’s why they lost. Not the 10 3-pointers the Bears made, or their 48.5 offensive rebound percentage, or Gonzaga All-American Corey Kispert’s suddenly wayward shooting.
But no, it was Pepperdine’s fault.
Mercifully, no one among America’s sporting media was foolish enough to propose this theory to Gonzaga coach Mark Few following the loss to Baylor, so I have no quotes from him to decorate this column. I have only facts, which should scream loudly to everyone that “battle-tested” is a myth. The Zags’ difficulty in winning the NCAA championships comes down to — and this may be hard to grasp — it is difficult to win an NCAA championship.
MORE: Breaking down the 1-minute, 36-second stretch that ended Gonzaga’s title hopes
Since 2015, when the Zags advanced to the Elite Eight with Kyle Wiltjer as their star player, Gonzaga has won more NCAA Tournament games than any other program.
Its 20 NCAA victories are more than two-time champion Villanova (17), more than North Carolina (16), more than Duke (15), more than Kansas and Kentucky (13 each) and more than Wisconsin (10). That’s right. You line up the blue bloods, the recent major-conference powers, and Gonzaga’s NCAA Tournament success — while supposedly being hindered by the WCC — exceeds everyone.
In that six-tournament period, it took the eventual NCAA champion to eliminate them three times and a Final Four entrant to eliminate them twice. They have reached two Final Fours in that period. Only Villanova, North Carolina and Michigan State can say the same. These are some of the teams Gonzaga has defeated in that time: Florida State, Iowa, West Virginia, Creighton, Ohio State, USC, UCLA (twice).
Oh, and Baylor.
The Bulldogs have reached six consecutive Sweet 16s. No other active college team can match that streak. In fact, since the tournament expansion to 64 teams in 1985, only three other times has such a streak been achieved: twice by Duke, and once by North Carolina.
If the Zags are not properly prepared for the NCAA Tournament, then who on Earth is?
MORE: Baylor ends Gonzaga’s perfect season with a Texas-sized storybook finish
The two highest-rated conferences according to the NCAA’s NET system in 2020-21 were the Big Ten and Big 12. They produced 16 NCAA tournament bids between them, but only two teams that advanced as far as the Sweet 16. Their experience suggests that being “battle-tested” actually might be a detriment in pursuit of a championship ring.
The dismissal of Gonzaga is a product of the elitism that bleeds over from college football, which is so entrenched in its aristocracy that it refuses even to allow programs to earn championship opportunities on the field, whether they come from the wealthiest conferences or beyond. In the College Football Playoff invitational, teams do not earn their positions in the tournament. They are, universally, selected.
A Gonzaga never would stand a chance in such an operation, but the Zags are welcome in college basketball. The game’s most rational fans understand their value, their talent and their achievement.
This is correct. It’s really not complicated. The facts cannot be disputed, only ignored.