One good thing about being old — I turn 64 Sunday — is I’ve seen a lot.
But one thing I haven’t seen a lot of — at least in the last 45 years — is a basketball team going undefeated and winning the NCAA national championship. Still haven’t seen it. Gonzaga’s perfect season ended with an imperfect performance.
Hats off to Baylor for pulling that off. Making 3-point shots and getting second looks on offensive rebounds was too much for the Zags. The Bears defense is as aggressive as can be. They got called for a lot of fouls, but they could have been called for a lot more. The Bulldogs gave up so many turnovers because of that. Gonzaga looked so slow and Baylor so quick, leading to easy buckets on pick and rolls. It was a mismatch, but not the way many thought it be.
Frankly, the best part of the game, if you’re a Bulldog fan, was the Star-Spangled Banner.
Since that was such a downer I’d rather talk about that miracle of a win over UCLA in the semifinals – which many are calling the best game in NCAA history. The TV announcers said it’s hard to come back after a game like that.
Let’s go with that.
I actually didn’t think they were going to win that game either. It doesn’t happen often but Mark Few was outcoached. The game was played at the tempo UCLA needed to keep it close. And the Zags kept playing man-on-man defense even though three Bruins seemingly could score at will with that setup.
But Gonzaga’s super freshman Jalen Suggs, along with sophomore Drew Timme, saved the day. Timme showed he also could score at will one-on-one, and Suggs came up with not one, but three plays of the game in the final seconds. First, he blocked a shot that might have given UCLA the win. Then he made one of the most-amazing passes you will ever see – a bounce pass from half-court to Timme for a fastbreak bucket. And then, of course, the lucky shot at the buzzer that everyone in the world has seen.
What I like most about the Zags is they play team basketball. Most of the time today, when you watch college or pros, they pass around the perimeter, set up a pick and roll, and shoot a 3-pointer. Very seldom do they pass inside to the player on the roll. When they do pass it inside you very seldom see them make a post move. Usually they kick it back out for a 3-pointer. Timme has excellent post moves but that’s rare.
Gonzaga’s not like that. They pass the ball around a lot. They are always moving and cutting and going back door and getting easy shots – even against zone defenses.
Everybody thinks of Gonzaga as the Big 3 – Timme, Suggs and Corey Kispert of Edmonds. But they’ve shown their depth during March Madness as Kispert especially has been fairly quiet. However, Joel Ayayi has been Mr. Cool, knocking down 3-pointers when Kispert isn’t. Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard has come up clutch on many occasions. And Anton Watson has been stellar off the bench.
This is the best college basketball team I’ve ever seen, and I’ve watched them a lot this year, probably 10 games.
This team is different than the unbeaten ones of years past – that have all had major superstars leading the way.
The first team I remember going unbeaten was back in 1967 when I was 10. Lew Alcindor, who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. They were coached by the legendary John Wooden, whom I got to interview for a story in 1976 — certainly a highlight of my career.
The Bruins also were unbeaten in 1972 and 1973. Bill Walton and Jamaal Wilkes starred both years, while Henry Bibby was also a top player in the first year.
The last team to go unbeaten was Bobby Knight’s Indiana squad. Scott May, Kent Benson and Quinn Buckner were their stars. They had some good balance, but not the depth of the Zags.
As a graduate of Washington State University in 1979, I wasn’t much aware of Gonzaga. They were just the little school up north in Spokane. We had the powerhouse college basketball team in the Northwest in those days, with George Raveling as coach and players like James Donaldson — who later played for the Sonics — and Don Collins, who played for the Atlanta Hawks.
Some of my favorite memories at WSU were watching college basketball. My favorite was actually a triple overtime 110-102 loss to UCLA that we almost won in the second overtime at the buzzer but a shot rolled off the rim. We actually beat the Zags that year 75-58.
Things are a lot different now when my best memories are watching the Zags almost go unbeaten in 2021.