INDIANAPOLIS — It feels as though the Gonzaga Bulldogs already should be in the Final Four, with 29 victories and not a single defeat in the books and the national semifinals just six days away. Even the best of teams, though, are required to win four games in the modern NCAA Tournament to reach the game’s grandest stage.
The Zags are the best of teams, but they still will be required to prove it once more to reach the destination that is every college basketball player’s dream, though perhaps more of a plan for group as gifted as this.
Mark Few has been to the Elite Eight before as Gonzaga head coach, and as an assistant before that. This is the program’s fifth appearance, and it has gotten there four times in the past six tournaments.
Gonzaga has been here as recently as 2019, then as now as the No. 1 seed in the West Region. That team missed the opportunity to move on. This team carries an even greater burden, with a perfect record and the role as favorite to win the national championship.
The Zags are not just favorites, though. They are that team that’s supposed to win, like Kentucky in 2015 or UNLV in 1991.
“We’re not hung up on the undefeated thing at all. We’ve got to go 3-0 if we want to win the championship, and that’s been our goal all along,” Few told reporters following Sunday’s alarmingly easy 83-65 victory over No. 5 West Region seed Creighton. “Pressure is on all these teams as you get farther and farther along with this. Pressure comes from all kinds of places, and the biggest pressure of all is you just don’t want it to end.”
Ordinarily, there feels like something different about the regional finals, because that game is followed either by the end of the season or another trip to this huge basketball extravaganza with a championship available to be won. This year, that title still beckons, but reaching the Final Four only means staying inside the NCAA’s bubble for another week.
“It just comes so quickly,” Few told Sporting News. “We had an enormous amount of time before this one, especially when you’re not traveling. We had tons of time off. We won’t find out our opponent (Oregon or USC) until after midnight.
“There’ll be lots of film, lots of prep work by the staff. This is where having a great staff — the staff I have, I think, is the best in the country … That’s why they’ve become so valuable. Probably tomorrow there’ll be nothing more than a walk-through, and 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 run the Bluejays off the 3-point line, give them as few open jump shots as possible. They hit only 5 of 23 from 3.
In the three games that have propelled the Zags to the Elite Eight, they have won by 43, 16 and 18 points. That’s an average of 26 points. And we all know this could have been just about any margin Gonzaga wished. There was no effort expended to embarrass the Bluejays, and none warranted. They’d had a fine season to reach this point.
This was far from Creighton’s finest performance, but also far from its worst. When the Jays played Georgetown in the Big East Tournament final and were run out of the gym, that was some lousy basketball.
“Defense made the difference,” Few said. “We did a really nice job, especially at the 3 line.”
Creighton chose to hound All-America wing Corey Kispert and allow guards Andrew Nembhard and Joel Ayayi to shoot uncontested 3s if they wished. And they did. And they made enough, a combined 6 of 15. The ball movement that led to those shots generated 23 assists on 34 made baskets.
“Passing has been great all year,” Few said. “It’s probably our best attribute. It’s the reason we have such good balance, the reason we score so well in the paint.
“Probably with us you’ve got to pick your poison a little bit. At this point in the season, it’s not like there are things you really haven’t seen. Our guys get the schemes that people choose, and then they adjust accordingly.”
Creighton’s Marcus Zegarowski had no desire to be the latest victim. He would do everything in his power to prevent Gonzaga’s undefeated season from progressing. He would make plays, make shots, make magic if it would help. How much can one guy do in this sport, though, if his name is not James, Jordan or Abdul-Jabbar?
Zegarowski was not alone against the Zags. There was help from any number of teammates. And still it seemed as if they were overwhelmed as the game commenced.
There was Gonzaga center Drew Timme dominating the lane. There was Nembhard surging into double figures before halftime. There was Ayayi hitting three times from 3-point range in the first nine minutes. Freshman guard Jalen Suggs was so breathtaking that some bottom-feeding NBA team would have drafted him No. 1 overall at halftime, except for the inconvenient facts that there still were another 20 minutes to play, and possibly three more games, and no one’s conducted a lottery yet.
This is how the breadth of Gonzaga’s talent overwhelms opponents: Kispert, the team’s leading scorer, scored only two points in the first half. Creighton ordered 6-5 forward Damien Jefferson to allow Kispert as little room as possible, and the result was a single shot attempt from the Zags’ senior star. And still the Jays spent most of the half in a double-digit deficit.
Kispert was content to watch his teammates dominate the first half, but he surely was not content. He entered the final 20 minutes determined to make an impact, to assure this game did not become any more competitive than necessary. (Which was: not all that competitive).
Kispert ditched Jefferson on the team’s third offensive possession using a sizzling cut across the lane that resulted in a hanging jumper from 8 feet. He converted a layup three minutes later and nailed his first 3-pointer two minutes after that, and the Zags had built their largest lead, 56-39. He added one more 3-pointer, because that’s all that was necessary. He’d made his point. The rest of the Zags could finish the job.
“At this point, every team has to go undefeated in order to win it, so there’s not really pressure to keep that streak,” Nembhard told reporters. “We always talk about just squeezing out that last 5 percent, especially at this point in the season. I definitely think we’re still improving. There’s still work we can do.
“I don’t think we have peaked.”
If that seems ominous, consider it is just as much of a challenge to Gonzaga as anyone else. The Zags do not want to leave this season without playing as many games as possible at the highest attainable level. Anything less will be a squandered opportunity.