Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Gonzaga won’t end as undefeated NCAA champion without defeating the Hoosiers curse

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Gonzaga built the quietest NCAA Division I basketball season of our lives, and that is true both literally and physically. The Zags have played all of their matches in arenas either devoid of spectators or quite close to it. The cacophony that often presents their biggest obstacle to perfecting the conference game was absent due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The Zags became the fifth team to make the NCAA tournament with a perfect record since Indiana compiled the last undefeated championship season in 1976, and their attempt to match the Hoosiers’ achievement will define the 2021 edition of March Madness.

It will get noisy now, even with limited participation in these games. The 2021 tournament will take place entirely in the state of Indiana, almost all in the city of Indianapolis, and it’s almost like there’s a Hoosier curse at work to protect Quinn’s legacy. Buckner, Scott May, Kent Benson and everything in between.

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Those three and coach Bob Knight were at the heart of the Indiana squad that ended the 1975-76 season with an 86-68 victory over Big Ten rival Michigan. It was the Hoosiers’ 32nd win of the season. There were no defeats. And, it seems, they still beat anyone who tries to match that feat.

The UNLV brought their overwhelming 1991 squad to Indianapolis and the Hoosier Dome for the Final Four, and there the Curse ended the Runnin ‘Rebels’ run of perfection with the help of the Duke Blue Devils in the semi-finals. NCAA tournament finals. A quarter of a century later, Kentucky arrived at Lucas Oil Stadium and the Final Four with nine future NBA players and 38 straight wins. This time it was the Wisconsin Badgers who were blessed with the curse and knocked out the Wildcats in the semifinals.

If the Zags move this far up the range, they risk facing something even more intimidating than two amazing college basketball teams.

After rallying to a double-digit deficit in the second half of the West Coast Conference title game against BYU, the Zags won the last of their 26 games before the tournament. If that doesn’t seem like much given the non-pandemic schedules that teams have played for the past decades, know that more than half of the previous 19 teams that entered the NCAA tournament without a loss have played as many games or less.

The trick for the Zags now is to convince themselves that they are 0-0, that being undefeated was not the goal at the start of the season. The NCAA Championship is what they wanted. This is the only thing, now, that Gonzaga basketball has yet to accomplish. They were ranked No. 1. They have reached 21 consecutive NCAA tournaments. They’ve been a No.1 seed four times. They took part in the Final Four and the national championship game in 2017. A championship is the last frontier.

There is a significant talent gap every year between the Zags and most of the other teams in the West Coast Conference. They have recorded five undefeated championship seasons under coach Mark Few and have won 91% of their games at the CMC.

So they came close to reaching the previously undefeated NCAAs, most notably in 2017, when they entered the final day of the regular season at 29-0 before falling to BYU at home.

In a typical year, however, Gonzaga’s trips to WCC opponents such as Santa Clara, San Francisco or Pepperdine, or especially St. Mary’s, are seen on the home team’s campus as an opportunity to ‘Pack the gym to get a glimpse of a great team. and try to decrease it, if only for one night. With the audience participation element missing from these road games, the Zags averaged 19 points and never by double-digit margin.

This was a big problem for UNLV in 1991, when the Rebels were 34-0 entering the Final Four and had just one game, a victory at Arkansas, decided by a single-digit margin. When Duke challenged the rebels in the dying minutes, they weren’t sure how to react. It was a circumstance they weren’t prepared for, and they let out a late little lead.

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When tested in the WCC title game, All-American winger Corey Kispert and head coach Mark Few both expressed a sense of relief that they were finally challenged by someone, anyone, and have found a way to triumph. And, of course, to stay perfect.

“We didn’t talk about it, until the consequences of BYU,” Little told CBS Sports. “We were just selected for the ‘next game’ and we won.

“I know this is our state of mind with the NCAA tournament. We’re talking about winning and moving forward, winning and moving forward and continuing to do what we’ve been doing all year. But I think it was important after the BYU game to tell the guys and recognize how amazing it is to be able to go undefeated. When you look at these teams that went undefeated in the NCAA tournament, it’s quite a group. And in my opinion, it’s an honor to be associated with all these teams.

It’s more of an honor, however, to be associated with UCLA in 1967 or 1957 in North Carolina or 1956 in San Francisco than in 2014 Wichita State or 1979 Indiana State.

Is it strange that every undefeated team since the 1976 Hoosiers has played at least part of their schedule in Indiana, and none can stay perfect until the end? The state of Wichita visited both the state of Indiana and Evansville. Larry Bird’s Sycamores have played all of their home games at Terre Haute.

Or is it too hard to stretch this “curse”?

When dealing with the supernatural, it is difficult to know what kinds of powers are at work.


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