The Zags have done something few others have managed in a 64-team field
Gonzaga is playing in the Sweet Sixteen for the fifth straight season, which is something no other team can say right now. It’s also something very few have ever been able to say before.
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, there have been only sixteen instances in which a team has advanced to the round of 16 in four or more consecutive seasons. Four straight seems to be the point at which teams drop off; it’s hard to sustain success at that level. Perhaps a magnificent class graduates and a rebuilding year follows. Or maybe the madness of March consumes a team earlier than it should. Regardless, over the years since the field expanded to 64 teams we have seen quality programs hit the four-straight mark but fail to advance past it over and over again.
Ten times, to be specific.
But a few programs have managed to break through the four-year ceiling and extend their runs to five or more. Until this year, only three had done it: Duke, North Carolina and Kansas.
Gonzaga is now among those elites.
So, how did the Zags get here? Let’s break it down year-by-year.
Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. burst onto the scene as freshmen and developed over their four year careers into, without a doubt, the best Gonzaga backcourt duo of all time.
As freshmen they jumped into a Gonzaga machine that was well-oiled, but not yet performing at the level of the nation’s elites. Their sophomore season saw the Zags earn the first No. 1 ranking and No. 1 seed in program history, and then lose to Wichita State in the round of 32 — though Gary Bell Jr., the team’s lock-down perimeter defender, breaking his foot in that game might just have had something to do with the Shockers getting uncharacteristically hot from behind the arc in that one. Their junior year saw the Zags struggle to a 29-win record and get bounced in the second round by top-seeded Arizona.
But everything came together in their senior season.
Kyle Wiltjer joined the team, as did USC grad transfer Byron Wesley. Przemek Karnowski had developed into a well-polished center as a junior with future NBA lottery pick Domantas Sabonis as his back-up.
The Zags opened the season ranked No. 13 in the AP Poll and climbed as high as No. 2 by February. They lost just twice in the regular season, to Arizona and BYU, and earned a two seed in the NCAA Tournament.
During the first weekend the Zags dispatched North Dakota State and Iowa in Seattle before heading to Houston for the Sweet Sixteen. Gonzaga took down UCLA in Houston to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in Mark Few’s career, and just the second time in program history, before falling to eventual national champion Duke, 66-52.
This wasn’t supposed to be a rebuilding year, even though Pangos and Bell had been lost to graduation, but it sort of felt like one.
With Karnowski, Wiltjer and Sabonis, the Zags boasted the nation’s best frontcourt and entered the year ranked No. 9 in the AP Poll. But Karnowski suffered a season-ending back injury just five games into the year and Gonzaga struggled to recover.
Redshirt freshman Josh Perkins led a backcourt alongside seniors Eric McClellan and Kyle Dranginis that lacked the starpower Gonzaga fans had grown accustomed to — even though McClellan was named WCC Defensive Player of the Year. That group took a ton of flack as the Zags failed to put together a solid at-large resume.
But, as the season wore on the team figured itself out. Wiltjer and Sabonis may not have formed the nation’s best front court, but they combined to be as lethal of a down-low duo as there was in the country. The Zags split the regular-season WCC title with Saint Mary’s, but then beat both BYU and the Gaels in the WCC Tournament to clinch an 18th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
From there, as an 11-seed, the Zags were sent to Denver.
They took down Seton Hall and Utah before falling victim to the Syracuse zone in a Sweet Sixteen matchup in Chicago.
This is the season that shouldn’t need a recap.
Gonzaga opened the year ranked No. 14 in the AP Poll and did nothing but climb, and win, until the end of February. The Zags opened the season with 29-straight victories.
It was a magnificent coaching job that earned Mark Few National Coach of the Year honors. It was magnificent not just because of the win total, but because of the group he did it with.
Beyond those three, it was nothing but new faces.
Three starters were transfers who had never played at Gonzaga before: point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (from Washington), shooting guard Jordan Mathews (from Cal) and power forward Johnathan Williams (from Missouri). Aside from Melson, the reserves were all new, too.
Zach Collins and Killian Tillie were the freshmen who made the biggest splash. But freshman Rui Hachimura and Jeremy Jones, a transfer from Rice in his first eligible season in Spokane, saw minutes as well.
Gonzaga lost on senior night to BYU, which put an end to an otherwise-perfect regular season. But the Zags bounced back and dominated the WCC Tournament en route to landing a one-seed for the second time in program history.
In Denver, the Zags took care of business against South Dakota State and Northwestern, leaving a whining child in their wake.
A tough test against Bob Huggins’ Press Virginia team came next in the Sweet Sixteen and Jordan Mathews’ stank face saved the day.
From there the Zags demolished Xavier to make the first Final Four in program history. Once in Phoenix, the Zags took down a Cinderella South Carolina team to play for the national championship. North Carolina came out on top, but the Zags showed well and established themselves as a legitimate power in the sport.
You’ve maybe noticed a trend here, that Gonzaga doesn’t have rebuilding years. But if ever there was to be one, the post-Final Four run season was it.
The Zags lost Karnowski and Mathews to graduation, Collins to the NBA Draft and Williams-Goss to an early exit. They’d have to rely on the returning players, all of whom were good, mind you, to step into bigger roles. But they’d also have to deal with higher expectations. This team had just made the National Championship, after all.
Gonzaga opened the season ranked No. 18 in the AP Poll, climbed as high as No. 12 and then dropped to No. 20 before climbing even higher to No. 8 entering the NCAA Tournament. The Zags earned a four-seed thanks to a 30-4 record and began the NCAA Tournament close to home in Boise, Idaho.
UNC-Greensboro, with former Zag Kyle Bankhead as an assistant, proved a tough out in the first round. But Zach Norvell’s late heroics pushed the Zags into the second round for the tenth straight season. Norvell stepped up again in the Round of 32, along with Rui Hachimura, as the Zags downed Ohio State to make it to the second weekend for the fourth straight season.
Luck would run out against Florida State though, as Killian Tillie would be a late scratch after suffering an injury in warmups.
Speaking of Florida State, the Zags find themselves in a similar position this season.
Top-seeded Gonzaga faces a fourth-seeded Seminoles team in the Sweet Sixteen this time around. Florida State is as athletic as deep as before, but Gonzaga is even better. The Zags lost Silas Melson and Johnathan Williams from last year’s team, but added players who are just as good if not better in Geno Crandall and Brandon Clarke.
Plus, Tillie’s set to play in this one, knock on wood.
Regardless of what happens tonight in Anaheim, this program has done something very few have done before. And that’s something that can’t ever be taken away from the Gonzaga Bulldogs.