INDIANAPOLIS – It feels like the Gonzaga Bulldogs should be in the Final Four already, with 29 wins and not a single loss in the books and the domestic semifinals just six days away. Even the best teams, however, must win four games in the modern NCAA tournament to reach the game’s biggest milestone.
The Zags are the best teams, but they’ll have to prove it yet to reach the destination that is every college basketball player’s dream, although perhaps more of a plan for a group as gifted as this.
Mark Few was previously part of the Elite Eight as Gonzaga’s head coach, and as an assistant before that. This is the program’s fifth appearance, and it has happened four times in the last six tournaments.
Gonzaga is here as recently as 2019, and then again today as the No.1 seed in the Western region. This team missed the opportunity to move on. This team carries an even heavier burden, with a perfect record and the role of favorite to win the national championship.
The Zags aren’t just favorites, however. They have the highest adjusted efficiency margin – the difference between what the team scores per 100 possessions and what their defense allows – since KenPom.com started recording stats in 2002.
This is the team that is supposed to win, like Kentucky in 2015 or the UNLV in 1991.
“We’re not hanging on to the undefeated at all. We have to go 3-0 if we are to win the championship, and that’s our goal from the start,” few told reporters after Sunday’s alarming ease. 83-65. win over Western Region No.5 seed Creighton “The pressure is on all of these teams as you go further and further with this. The pressure comes from all kinds of places, and the most. big pressure from all of them is that you just don’t want this to stop. ”
Usually there is something different about regional finals, as that game is followed either by the end of the season or by another trip to this huge basketball extravaganza with a championship up for grabs. This year, that title still attracts attention, but reaching the Final Four only means staying in the NCAA bubble for another week.
“It is coming so fast,” Few told Sporting News. “We had a tremendous amount of time before this one, especially when you’re not traveling. We had tons of free time. We won’t find out about our opponent (Oregon or USC) until after midnight.
“There will be a lot of films, a lot of prep work on the part of the staff. This is where having a great staff – the staff that I have, I think, are the best in the country … which is why they have become so valuable. Probably tomorrow there will be nothing more than a guided tour, then you get up and the next day is game day. We need to be rested and ready to roll. “
The plan against Creighton was to get the Bluejays off the 3 point line, to give them as few open jumps as possible. They only hit 5 of 23 of 3.
In the three games that propelled the Zags into the Elite Eight, they won by 43, 16 and 18 points. That’s an average of 26 points. And we all know it could have been just about any margin Gonzaga wanted. No effort was made to embarrass the Bluejays, and none warranted it. They had had a good season to reach this point.
It was far from Creighton’s best performance, but also far from his worst. When the Jays played Georgetown in the Big East Tournament final and got kicked out of the gym, it was lousy basketball.
“The defense made a difference,” said few. “We did a really good job, especially on line 3.”
Creighton opted to hunt down All-America wing Corey Kispert and allow guards Andrew Nembhard and Joel Ayayi to shoot undisputed 3s if they wanted. And they did. And they did enough, a combined 6 of 15. The ball movement that led to those shots generated 23 assists out of 34 baskets made.
“Passing through has been great all year,” few said. “It’s probably our best attribute. This is the reason why we have such a good balance, the reason why we mark so well in the paint.
“Probably with us you have to pick your poison a little bit. At this point in the season it’s not like there are things that you really haven’t seen. Our guys are getting the blueprints that people are getting. choose, then they adapt accordingly. “
Creighton’s Marcus Zegarowski had no desire to be the last victim. He would do anything in his power to stop Gonzaga’s undefeated season from progressing. He would play games, do hits, do magic if that could help. But what can a guy do in this sport if his name isn’t James, Jordan or Abdul-Jabbar?
Zegarowski was not alone against the Zags. There was help from a number of teammates. And yet it seemed like they were overwhelmed at the start of the game.
There was Gonzaga center Drew Timme dominating the track. There was Nembhard leaping into double digits before half-time. Ayayi hit three times at 3 points in the first nine minutes. First-year goalie Jalen Suggs was so mind-blowing that a bottom-feeding NBA team would have drafted him No.1 overall at halftime, barring the embarrassing facts that he still remained 20 minutes to go, and maybe three more games, and no one has led. a lottery again.
This is how Gonzaga’s breadth of talent overwhelms his opponents: Kispert, the team’s top scorer, scored just two points in the first half. Creighton ordered 6-5 forward Damien Jefferson to give Kispert as little room as possible, and the result was a one-shot attempt by the senior Zags star. And still the Jays spent most of the half in a double-digit deficit.
Kispert was happy to see his teammates dominate the first half, but he was surely not satisfied. He stepped into the final 20 minutes determined to make an impact, to ensure this game doesn’t get more competitive than necessary. (Which was: not that competitive).
Kispert let Jefferson down on the team’s third offensive possession using a sizzling cut through the lane that resulted in an 8-foot suspended jumper. He converted a layup three minutes later and nailed his first 3-pointer two minutes later, and the Zags had built their biggest lead, 56-39. He added another 3 point pointer because that is all that was needed. He had made his point. The rest of the Zags could finish the job.
“At this point each team has to go unbeaten to win, so there is not much pressure to maintain that streak,” Nembhard told reporters. “We’re always talking about just knocking out that last 5%, especially at this point in the season. I really think we are getting even better. There is still work we can do.
“I don’t think we’ve reached a peak.”
If that sounds worrying, consider it just as much of a challenge for Gonzaga as it is for anyone else. The Zags don’t want to leave this season without playing as many games as possible at the highest level possible. Anything less will be a wasted opportunity.