It is unlikely, even if they finish this remarkable run by cutting down another set of nets next Monday, that the Gonzaga Bulldogs will find themselves in the conversation debating the best college basketball teams ever.
Whoever that team is — Bill Russell’s San Francisco teams, any of John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins, the odd Kentucky or Duke champ, others — played in a different sport, a different time — certainly a different time than this time, this season, with COVID-19 lurking behind every gymnasium window and loitering outside every field-house door.
Besides, there’s no law that says the best team ever — whoever that was — had to be undefeated. Two of Lew Alcindor’s UCLA teams lost games; good luck to any assembled five in history — including Alcindor’s first Bruins team, which DID go unbeaten — trying to beat those guys.
What’s in play now, for sure, after Gonzaga reserved a spot in its second Final Four with a name-the-score 85-66 dismantling of USC Tuesday night — is a different possible title.
Best season ever.
“This team is a joy to coach,” Mark Few said after watching his Bulldogs jump to a 21-point lead 10 minutes into the game and then cruise home effortlessly. “And it is a joy to watch.”
It is every ounce of that, a backdoor-cutting, 3-point-shooting, running and trapping and defending and rebounding wonder, capable of beating you in this game in every way Dr. Naismith imagined — and a few that probably never even occurred to the good doctor.
USC was playing as well as anyone in the tournament, had absolutely throttled Drake and Kansas and Oregon, and Gonzaga treated the Trojans like a frosh team — and not an especially accomplished one. It was win No. 30 for the Zags — 29 of which have come via double-digits (West Virginia, in the third game of the season, fought them to within five, 87-82).
If the Bulldogs do this weekend what they’ve done the rest of the year to the rest of their schedule — not just win, but win by 10 or more — they will officially do what no other team has ever done going back to the first NCAA Tournament in 1939.
Russell’s Dons couldn’t do it, though they came close, winning single-digit games against Marquette and Cal on the way to 29-0 in 1955-56. North Carolina couldn’t do it the next year on the way to 30-0, winning seven single-digit games (including three against Wake Forest alone) before winning back-to-back triple-overtime games against Michigan State and Kansas at the Final Four.
Even Bob Knight’s fabled 1975-76, 32-0 Indiana Hoosiers, the last undefeated team which is perennially in the best-team-ever debate, had to survive two overtime games (Kentucky and Michigan) besides squeaking by Notre Dame by two and Ohio State by three.
The team that probably holds the best-season ever mark is 1971-72 UCLA, the third of Wooden’s four undefeated teams, which won each of its 30 games by an average score of 96-64 and won just one regular-season game by less than 10 (78-72 over Oregon State) before Florida State kept the score respectable, 81-76, in the national championship game (though the Bruins led by 11 at the half).
“They are an exceptional basketball team, very fast, skill at every position,” USC coach Andy Enfield said, joking when asked how to beat them: “I’m probably the wrong guy to ask.”
“They’re hard to guard,” he added. “They have great shooters and great ballhandling and great speed and …”
And you get the idea. Good luck to the other three survivors who get to stay in Indianapolis the rest of the week to partake in the Gonzaga Invitational.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” Few said. “I thought we showed tremendous energy and toughness on both ends of the floor and played with great pace.”
Added freshman Jalen Suggs who had 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists: “We just played our normal game tonight.”
(Is it bad form to wonder if the Knicks can still execute a last-minute “Play-like-scrubs-for-Suggs” tanking campaign from here till May? Asking for a friend …)
The Zags’ “normal game” is, Few’s words, a joy to behold. Two more normal games and we may be able to say we witnessed the greatest season a team ever engineered, start to finish. And maybe then the Zags might eke their way into that OTHER conversation, too.