Gonzaga, and that tricky final step

As a kid in the Midwest, my very first brush with college basketball was with the Ohio State Buckeyes, with Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek and Larry Siegfried and Mel Nowell. I believed they hung the moon. They beat everybody, usually badly. And when it came to the 1961 national-championship game and they lost as an undefeated team in overtime to Cincinnati, it was beyond my comprehension. How could it even be?

Sixty years later (good grief), I’m guessing Gonzaga faithful feel similarly today. How could something that seem so predestined end so poorly? How could a team that passed so intuitively, cut so sharply, shared so collaboratively, fall so nakedly to Baylor?

Largely, the Zags were dysfunctional against the Bears, and it was shocking to the eye. I couldn’t recall when Gonzaga was just schooled like that. Not by BYU last year in Provo. Not by Saint Mary’s in the WCC tournament in 2019, although the Gaels have their own understated way of spinning a web of superiority. Not at North Carolina in 2018, even as the Tar Heels put up 103.

There were times in this Final Four when Gonzaga energy seemed wanting. Baylor bludgeoned the Zags on the glass, 38-22, 16 of those offensive rebounds. UCLA outrebounded Gonzaga by six – this after a tournament in which the Zags outboarded USC by 12, Creighton by seven, Oklahoma by eight.

The popular narrative is that UCLA stripped Gonzaga of its bounce and emotion in the 93-90 semifinal screamer two nights earlier. We’ll never know. But when Duke upended unbeaten UNLV in 1991 in the national semis, it had enough to come back and finish against Kansas. In 2001, after Duke overcame a 22-point first-half deficit to Maryland, it summoned what it took to beat Arizona in the final.

But, Baylor. While the Zags cruised through February -- the undefeated story gathering momentum -- Baylor’s season skidded to a stop with a Covid outbreak. That, and two losses soon after, served to obscure the fact this team was a force otherwise highly capable of its own unbeaten season.

The Bears might have been the most formidable title-game underdog ever. They left the Zags to reckon with an 86-70 loss, a 31-1 season and a dream eviscerated.

By now, it’s obvious the bar is ridiculously high at Gonzaga. In this dreamy season, it almost escaped notice that the Zags made their second Final Four in four years – once a Holy Grail in Spokane -- so preoccupied were we at the pursuit of the championship. The six consecutive Sweet 16s, the 20 NCAA-tournament victories since 2015, those were footnotes to the grander mission. But the destination turned out meh. It was the journey, gamely forged in the rigors of a pandemic, that proved unforgettable.

A radio host in Seattle asked on Monday: Did the Zags need to win the natty to validate the program? No, not even close. The validation came a long time ago. Now, is there unfinished business? No doubt. Will Gonzaga be less than fulfilled if it fails to win a championship? Of course.

It can be a process. Mike Krzyzewski first took Duke to a Final Four in 1986, losing to Louisville in the final by three. He got to the Final Four again in 1988 without a title. And in 1989. And in 1990. It wasn’t until his fifth one, in ’91, that he won the big trophy.

People remember Michael Jordan’s jumper to win North Carolina the championship in 1982, but it’s often forgotten that was a first title over 21 years for Dean Smith, one of the greatest coaches in history, a guy whose breakthrough came in his seventh Final Four. A fellow who had once been hung in effigy on the Carolina campus.

Today, social media doesn’t countenance such procrastination. It doesn’t matter that the Zags ran a more gorgeous offense than I’ve ever seen, whirring, zipping, laying the ball in. The WCC doesn’t get them ready, Twitter barks. What did you expect?

The Zags will keep sawing wood, as Mark Few likes to say. Meanwhile, you hear the opinion that right now, in this moment, it’s Gonzaga as much as Duke or Kentucky that’s the college-basketball program of choice. Guys are lining up to join the program. It’s indicative that there’s been little public consternation over whether Drew Timme opts out for the NBA, because the Zags are likely to add 7-1 Chet Holmgren, perhaps a generational talent. And wouldn’t that be some one-two up front?

As they say, it’s hard to win one of these things. Once, probably even Coach K despaired over that. But it says here the question at Gonzaga isn’t so much if, but when.