Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated
With a 29-0 record, the Gonzaga Bulldogs appeared poised to finish the regular season unbeaten. They appeared poised to roll through the West Coast Conference (WCC) tournament and to become the third team in the past four seasons to enter the NCAA men’s basketball tournament with an undefeated record (Wichita State Shockers in 2014 and Kentucky Wildcats in 2015).
They appeared as though they would have a chance to become the first men’s college basketball team since the 1975-1976 Indiana Hoosiers to secure a perfect college basketball season with a win in the national championship game as a team with an undefeated record.
The Bulldogs had not lost since Friday, March 25th, 2016, when they lost in the Sweet Sixteen of the 2016 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament to the Syracuse Orange by a score of 63-60. They were on a 29-game winning streak, which was the longest active winning streak in the country.
Playing at home at the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Washington, with a 16-2 early lead in their 30th and final regular season game of the season against the Brigham Young (BYU) Cougars on Saturday, February 25th, 2017, exactly 11 months after their most recent loss, the Bulldogs looked like they would easily pull off step one of that goal. However, the Cougars had other plans, and they rallied to win the game by a score of 79-71.
With Gonzaga’s aspirations of a perfect season derailed, they still managed to win the WCC tournament championship, and they entered this season’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament as a #1 seed with a 32-1 record.
The Bulldogs won their opening round matchup against the #16 seed South Dakota State Jackrabbits by a score of 66-46. Then, they went on to defeat the #8 seed Northwestern Wildcats by a score of 79-73 to earn their third consecutive trip to the Sweet Sixteen.
In the Sweet Sixteen, they knocked off the #4 seed West Virginia Mountaineers by a score of 61-58 to lock up their second Elite Eight berth in the past three seasons. In the Elite Eight, they defeated the #11 seed Xavier Musketeers in blowout fashion by a score of 83-59 to advance to their first Final Four in program history.
Standing between Gonzaga and their first appearance in a national championship game in program history are the white-hot #7 seed South Carolina Gamecocks (26-10), who defeated the #10 seed Marquette Golden Eagles, the #2 seed Duke Blue Devils, the #3 seed Baylor Bears, and the #4 seed Florida Gators in order to lock up their first trip to the Final Four in program history.
A win over South Carolina puts either the #1 seed North Carolina Tar Heels or the #3 seed Oregon Ducks in between Gonzaga and their first national championship victory in program history. While a win over either of those teams would not come easily for the Bulldogs, both of those teams are teams that Gonzaga is fully capable of defeating to win the national championship.
If Gonzaga is able to win their Final Four matchup against South Carolina and then knock off either North Carolina or Oregon to win their first championship, the Bulldogs will go down as champions and the BYU Cougars will go down in infamy.
Why? Because Gonzaga would become the first 1-loss NCAA men’s basketball tournament champion since the North Carolina State Wolfpack finished the 1973-1974 season with a 30-1 record as national champions. This would make BYU the first team since the California-Los Angeles (UCLA) Bruins in the 1973-1974 season to be the lone team to defeat the champion during their championship season. UCLA defeated North Carolina State by a score of 84-66 early on in the 1973-1974 season before the Wolfpack went on to win the national championship game.
While a Gonzaga championship win would produce celebration and excitement for many, including non-Gonzaga fans, it would leave a feeling of “what could have been” had the Bulldogs knocked off the Cougars in the final game of the regular season.