On Saturday morning, before top-ranked Gonzaga casually tossed aside 16th-ranked Virginia just like that big garbage bag filled with wrapping paper you still have at your home, KenPom.com estimated the Zags’ chances at finishing the regular season undefeated to be 24.3%.
Then Gonzaga mowed over Virginia 98-75, completing its sixth game out of seven reaching at least 90 points, toppling a fourth Top 25 foe in the process. When KenPom’s rankings refreshed after the win, Gonzaga moved from No. 2, behind Baylor, back to No. 1 atop the predictive metric. Its chances of going undefeated spiked too: Pomeroy’s algorithm now has Mark Few’s squad with a 44.1% chance of finishing the regular season without a scratch.
Somehow, 44.1% still feels too low.
Few has built a behemoth, so much so that this team has college basketball buzzing about how great it can be — in all-time terms. Already. Gonzaga’s hype is reaching levels normally saved for the likes of Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke or Kansas in their greatest seasons. We’re not even into January and the biggest on-court question in college basketball is loud, obvious and seemingly destined to not go away before March.
Can anyone beat Gonzaga?
It’s not just the wins or the opponents, it’s the casual dominance on display in these games. These nonchalant shellackings call to mind Alabama’s best teams under Nick Saban. But that’s Alabama, out of the SEC.
This is Gonzaga, out of the WCC.
John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo — Hall of Fame coaches at blue blood programs — look at Few’s roster and must feel deep envy. What a curve in the plot. Bob Huggins’ West Virginia team boasts the best performance so far against GU … and it lost by five while “holding” Gonzaga to a season-low 87 points … in a game that had future top-five pick Jalen Suggs leave temporarily because of an injury scare.
On Saturday, GU seemed to vanquish UVA with a flick of the wrist. Corey Kispert’s wrist. The preseason First Team All-American — who, with good reason, has been occasionally overshadowed by Suggs and macho-mustachioed sophomore Drew Timme — reminded the country why he was considered elite heading into 2020-21. Kispert sank a school-record nine 3-pointers (including one from Dame range) and finished with a game-high 32 points. Timme added 29 for good measure.
Here’s what an afterthought of a day for Suggs looks like: eight points, seven rebounds, six assists, four steals. Gonzaga’s not fair.
At 7-0, it has a stranglehold on the No. 1 ranking and figures to not let go of it for the rest of the regular season. Inevitable victims Northern Arizona and Dixie State are due up next, the games scheduled for Monday and Tuesday back in Spokane. The Bulldogs are projected to win each of those by 34 points. The last time a team outside the power-conference structure was doing this to its competition with regularity, there was a man chewing a towel on the sidelines who was turning the sport on its head.
His name was Jerry Tarkanian and he coached UNLV to a 30-0 record heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Some parallels are starting to come into focus.
So here I am, ready to break one of my few college hoops cardinal rules. Because Gonzaga is that good. I’ve long believed that, prior to the end of January or early February, sincerely discussing a college basketball team’s chances of getting to the NCAA Tournament without a loss is mostly a lost cause. A majority of the time, when this topic surfaces in December or early January, it’s usually ill-fated. Only three teams in the past 40 seasons have made it to the NCAA Tournament unscathed.
Most seasons, teams can’t even make it to Valentine’s Day.
In the past 40 years, the only teams to not take an L prior to the Dance are 1990-91 UNLV, 2013-14 Wichita State and 2014-15 Kentucky. None won a national title, but two made the Final Four.
But even in this pandemic-cursed season, Gonzaga is looking like a confident pick to be the fourth team since 1979 to carry a bagel in the loss column come Selection Sunday. We can have this discussion now. We can talk about Gonzaga’s chances to go undefeated into March because it’s looking a lot like it’s going to go undefeated into March. There is normally a requisite “barring injury” preface to these claims, but to hell with that: Gonzaga is good enough to get there even if one of its starters were to suffer an injury (and let’s hope no such thing occurs). This is the most loaded team in college basketball; no one matches GU’s offensive ceiling, that’s for sure. It’s the No. 1-rated offense despite ranking 80th in 3-point percentage (36.4%), which isn’t a glitch. It’s frightening Gonzaga is breaking modern basketball doctrines by being so great without needing to be even consistently good from 3.
The Zags have a troika of studs good enough to be First Team All-Americans, which is something that’s been true of a given college basketball team in a single season, what, five times ever? If that? Timme, Kispert and Suggs comprise the best trio in college hoops. Joel Ayayi and Andrew Nembhard would be alphas on many other teams. For Gonzaga, they help fill up the crust.
Put it this way: Gonzaga played the reigning national champions on Saturday, a team projected to be the best in the ACC, coached by Tony Bennett, who is universally regarded as a top-10 coach … uh, Gonzaga pulled its starters with more than five minutes remaining.
If the Bulldogs have an equal this season, we’ve yet to see foolproof evidence of that. The advanced metrics suggest Baylor is right there. Maybe that’s true. We might never know. Those two were supposed to play earlier this month, but the coronavirus prevented it from happening. Perhaps the tournament will gift a makeup affair. Let’s hope so, because at this point it looks like the only teams with the roster, coaching and experience to have a realistic chance vs. Gonzaga are Baylor, Villanova and maybe Kansas in a rematch. (The first version had Gonzaga winning by 12 and scoring 102 points without a hitch.)
If we get any of those, it will be good news; odds are they’d happen on a Final Four stage and quite possibly with an undefeated Gonzaga team, this David-turned-Goliath out of the West Coast Conference, chasing immortality. A year after losing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in history, that would be quite an incredible story in American sports.