Last week, MK weighed in on her picks for who will cut down the nets in Phoenix. But in a tournament literally described as “madness” those seemingly safe bets are never safe.
So let’s be real and accept that Kansas will find a way to choke (again). And that the selection committee didn’t hand UCLA or Duke any favors with their draws. Both teams that could win it all or get eliminated on day one (remember Lehigh and Mercer?). Despite last year’s title run, March has typically been unkind to the Wildcats of Villanova. And while UNC has the talent, experience and coaching to make another title run, they are far from invincible, as evidenced in losses at Georgia Tech, Miami, and most recently in their ACC tournament loss to Duke.
When you take a take a look away from the trendy picks, you’ll find a Louisville Cardinals team whose combination of pressure defense, balanced scoring, and superior coaching are a recipe for success in March. You’ll also find the Kentucky Wildcats, one of the most talented teams in the nation, that has quietly have won 12 straight games, including a dominating performance in winning the SEC tournament this past weekend.
If you really want to get adventurous, look at the AAC Champion SMU Mustangs, also riding a 12-game winning streak, including 26 of their last 27 games. But I want to focus on the most glaring omission from MK’s list: the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Gonzaga was the original Cinderella, advancing to a whisker of the Final Four in 1999 before losing to eventual National Champion UConn. Since then, Gonzaga has been a tournament staple, making the tournament for 18 consecutive years and advancing to the Sweet 16 six times and the Elite Eight twice. This record is unheard of any mid-major school.
Because Gonzaga belongs to the West Coast Conference, they almost always have to win their conference tournament just to get a spot in the Big Dance. Even more astounding is that despite the fact they are in a mid-major conference, Gonzaga has been able to secure an 8-seed or better in 12 of the last 18 years.
Recently, Gonzaga has had success with this current group of players in the NCAA tournament. They made it to the Elite Eight in 2015 before falling to eventual National Champion Duke, and lost last year in the Sweet 16 to eventual Final Four team, Syracuse.
This year, I believe the stars have aligned for a deep Final Four berth and a shot at the NCAA Championship. They are the #1 seed in the West region. They will have boisterous support in their opening round games in Salt Lake City and at the West Regional in San Jose. And if they do away with Arizona in the Elite Eight, the Final Four in Phoenix might even be considered a home game.
The critics’ knock on Gonzaga is that they haven’t played enough tough teams to truly earn their stripes. But I don’t care what conference you are in, going 30-1 is extremely impressive. Even more impressive when you take into account that they have beaten Florida, Iowa State, Arizona, and St. Mary’s—all teams that are in the Top 25. Their roster boasts Wooden Award finalist Nigel Williams-Goss, a dominant center in Przemek Karnowski, a deep bench, an experienced coach in Mark Few, and a team that is superior at both ends of the floor.
Gonzaga is a team that won’t be fazed by the bright lights and intensity of March. They’ve had to hear all year that “Gonzaga is overrated,” so most importantly, they’re playing with a chip on their shoulder.
MK is right. You do need depth, polish, experience, clutch players, good coaching, and a little of that wildcard magic to succeed in March. The Zags have all of the above. They will make it to Phoenix and with a little luck, will be the first mid-major to cut down the nets on April 3rd.