The dream of a perfect season for the Gonzaga men’s basketball team seemed to be over Tuesday at the West Coast Conference championship game. But Gonzaga found a rhythm in the second half – the Bulldogs were down 12 points at halftime – and secured the tournament title with an 88-78 victory over BYU.
Gonzaga (26-0) now has a chance in the NCAA Tournament to match the last perfect season in college basketball, achieved by Indiana in the 1975-76 season. According to Zags coach Mark Few, the team has absorbed the history associated with this moment.
We were just talking about it, not many people said that after Tuesday’s win. We finally realized that this is a great thing, it puts us in incredible company. This team is from Kentucky (2015). … It’s a great success. It’s really a hell of a gig instead of that stuffy atmosphere. I just give this group of guys a lot of credit.
Gonzaga became the fifth team to enter the NCAA Tournament with an undefeated record – along with Indiana State (1979), UNLV (1991), Wichita State (2014) and Kentucky (2015) – since Indiana’s perfect season 45 years ago. None of the teams that came after Indiana won the title.
The last time, six years ago, after Kentucky lost to Wisconsin in the 2015 Final Four in Indianapolis, blue and white fans sobbed in the stands at Lucas Oil Stadium. Like Gonzaga, the Wildcats seemed to have everything in their power: Size, athleticism and NBA talent. They entered the NCAA Tournament with a 34-0 record and were just two wins away from perfection when they met the Badgers.
Now Gonzaga has the chance to make history. While the stars have yet to align for the rest of the undefeated programs in the current version of the NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga has already proven it has an edge. Not only is it the last undefeated college basketball team this season, but on its resume are victories over Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa, Virginia and BYU (three times).
Jalen Suggs makes room and makes a three-pointer against BYU. Gonzaga wins the West Coast Conference title.
It’s hard not to think about it, lottery hopeful Jalen Suggs said of the possibility of a perfect season after scoring 23 points in Tuesday’s win over Gonzaga. But I think we’re all pretty focused. At some point we have to recognize how special this thing is and how special the journey we are on is. I think the best part is that we’re all excited. We’re all looking forward to seeing what happens next.
It is important to understand how the expansion of the playing field and the modern format affect the pursuit of excellence in college basketball.
According to the NCAA, 19 teams – now 20 – are perfect for the final chapter of the season. All but four teams, including Gonzaga, have gone undefeated in the NCAA Tournament since the number of teams was increased to 64 in 1985. Indiana’s perfect season came one year after the field expanded from 16 to 32 teams in 1975. With 64 teams, no team has ever had a perfect season – 68 teams is now an era.
Although the perfect teams that went down against Indiana shared the same fate, their paths were different.
During the 1978-79 season. Larry Bird averaged 28.6 PPG and 14.9 RPG for Indiana State against Michigan State’s Magic Johnson in the national title game. It was a great run, as the Birdie squad was not ranked at the start of the season, but quickly grew and created a furore once the season started. Johnson scored 24 points in the 75-64 victory over Sycamore.
UNLV also won every regular season game in 1991. Larry Johnson (22.7 PPG) led the defending national champions with five future NBA players on the team. They were also unstoppable in the tournament until they met Duke – the same team they beat by 30 points in the national title game earlier in the season – and lost 79-77 in the Final Four. It was a shock to college basketball.
Yet Wichita State’s 2013-14 team looked doomed from the start. On selection Sunday of this season, the undefeated Shockers, who did not have an impressive non-conference record, were put on a collision course with eighth-ranked Kentucky, led by Julius Randle. Kentucky defeated Wichita State 78-76 in the second round to advance to the national title game, where it lost to UConn 60-54.
But a year later, Kentucky’s team looks to have ended 2015 with a perfect record, nearly 40 years after Indiana’s run. But Karl-Anthony Towns and his teammates had no answer for Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminski and Sam Dekker in the Final Four, where the Wildcats lost 71-64.
Andrew Nembhard is sneaking shots for Gonzaga against BYU.
Gonzaga will now go for the school’s first national title while making NCAA history. The Bulldogs understand what they’re up against.
Like Indiana State, this is not a sexy Power Five program. Like UNLV, they’re loaded with top talent (Suggs and Corey Kispert both came in the top 10 on ESPN’s last practice squad). Like Wichita State, they had to deal with a lot of skeptics. And like Kentucky, they came through the season with a dominant performance.
And his dream is still alive.
I’ve waited my whole life to play in these moments, Suggs said Tuesday. Tonight was surreal.