The rise of Gonzaga under head coach Mark Few is one of the more unexpected ascents to power in the history of collegiate sports. Inheriting a mid-major program with virtually no history and little success, Few built on the work of his predecessor Dan Monson and built the Bulldogs into a perennial contender.
Despite several Elite Eight appearances and falling just short of a title in 2017, this season's Zags are easily the most talented to step foot in Spokane. Going 26-0 this season, complete with a 4-0 record vs. Top 25 teams, Gonzaga cruised to a West Coast Conference victory. Now, the "new-blood" attempts to complete their meteoric rise to college basketball supremacy: a National Championship. Is there any hope for the other 67 teams in this year's bracket?
*All statistics and rankings courtesy of Sports Reference CBB
Making a Monster
It feels like a decade ago, but last year's Gonzaga team was exceptional as well. A 31-2 record and the nation's highest-scoring offense propelled them to what would have been a likely #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
So, what makes this year's team even better? To start, many of the key players from 2019-20 are back, with expanded roles and improved play. Washington native Corey Kispert, a first-team All American, has erupted into an elite scoring threat, averaging 19.2 points per game on 54/44/90 shooting. Drew Timme has become a menace inside the paint, increasing his scoring and rebounding numbers on a team lacking size. Joel Ayayi continues to be one of the best rebounding guards in the nation, while Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard and sophomore forward Anton Watson act as solid complimentary pieces.
Additionally, the team added superstar freshman Jalen Suggs to play point guard. The #7 overall recruit and top point guard in the 2020 class, Suggs has been a revelation for Few, showcasing a rare ability to make elite-level plays at such a young age. With the ability to score efficiently (51.2 FG%) or play off-ball, he meshes perfectly with the Zags offense, while offering good perimeter defense (2.0 steals per game) and rebounding (5.5 TRB).
More important than any one player has been Gonzaga's stellar two-way play. While the Bulldogs have had the nation's top offense the past two seasons according to KenPom, their defense went from good to exceptional this year. Ranked at a modest 43rd in 2019-20, Gonzaga now finds itself at ninth. This improvement has elevated their Adjusted Efficiency Margin to 36.55, easily better than second-place Michigan. With a deep roster, experienced head coach, and a better-than-ever defense, how can anyone hope to take down the Zags?
Who Can Pull Off the Upset?
To further complicate matters for everyone else in the nation, the selection committee gave Gonzaga one of the easier paths to the Final Four in recent memory. The other top three seeds in the East region (Iowa, Kansas, Virginia) have all been beaten by the Bulldogs at some point during the regular season, each time by more than ten points. While other seeds, such as Illinois and Baylor, face immediate tests in the Round of 32, Gonzaga should (knock on wood) have no trouble advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, if not further.
To get a blueprint on taking down Goliath, take a look at the team's most recent game, the West Coast Conference championship against BYU. The Cougars got off to a blazing start, taking a 53-41 lead into halftime. While Gonzaga would eventually whittle down the lead before surging ahead in the final minutes, the game was closer than the ten-point margin would suggest.
In many ways, BYU got incredibly unlucky. The team didn't turn the ball over much and shot well from three-point land (39%). However, the Zags simply got red hot down the stretch, led by the clutch play of Suggs. They shot 46% from three, about 10% higher than their season average from long distance. Another key was Gonzaga's defensive pressure in the second half. The Cougars never seemed comfortable dealing with the press, and were forced into taking worse shots and more turnovers.
A team that can handle the ball well while knocking down their threes has as good a shot as any to take down Gonzaga, although they'll need an off-night from the opposition as well.
Here are some squads that could hand them their first loss within the West region or the Final Four:
We've written about our skepticism over the Hawkeyes before, and still stand by our concerns over the team's defense, despite some better play of late. Even so, Luka Garza and co. excel at knocking down threes, a factor that makes them especially dangerous in March.
Additionally, the team ranks first in the nation in defensive free throw attempt rate, so don't expect to see many shots from the charity stripe for Suggs and Kispert. If Garza dominates inside and draws in defenders, that could create some good looks for Iowa.
The question remains: will the Hawkeyes manage to defend? It remains to be seen if Fran McCaffery's team can play a complete game on the sport's biggest stage.
Of all the underdogs on this list, USC is the biggest long shot. They won't be able to keep up if the game becomes a shootout due to their subpar shooting numbers.
However, the Trojans have something that nobody else in the nation does: Evan Mobley. The future NBA lottery pick is an absolute freak of nature, capable of shooting treys one minute and swatting shots on the other end of the floor.
USC can slow down the pace of play while letting Evan and his brother Isaiah feast on the boards, given that Gonzaga allows the 19th-most offensive rebounds in the country. It would take a lot to even keep it close, but USC has the personnel to make Few sweat for forty minutes.
The matchup we've all been waiting for could be a nightmare for Gonzaga. The Bears are one of the more loaded teams in the nation, helmed by two superstar guards in Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell, both of whom could give Suggs fits with their two-way play.
Additionally, nobody shoots the three better than Baylor, knocking down an absurd .418% of their attempts. Strangely enough, they are much worse from the free throw line, making .697% of their free throw attempts, 221st in the nation.
More cause for concern is their recent drop-off on defense ever since the team dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak in February. Baylor will need to return to its old form in order to pull out a victory here, but it would be foolish to dismiss their status as an elite title-contender.
Another matchup that can only occur in the championship game, Illinois has a ton going for them. They enter March Madness as the Big 10 champions while taking down some of the best teams in the nation in the last three weeks (Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa).
Ayo Dosunmu is a contender for the Wooden Award as the nation's best player; he averages 20.7 PPG to go along with 6.3 TRB and 5.3 APG. Inside the paint, center Kofi Cockburn is an absolute monster, scoring 17.6 PPG to go along with 9.6 boards. Illinois has shown an ability to play well even without their best players; they upset Michigan while Dosunmu was sidelined and have a strong enough defense (5th ranked on KenPom) to give teams fits.
Still, going against Gonzaga means matching the play of three All-Americans. For the Illini to pull off the upset, they'll need one of their unheralded players to elevate their game when it matters most.
Beating Gonzaga is a tall task to say the least. The nation's top offense combined with a top ten defense means that there are virtually no weaknesses on this roster. We've seen undefeated titans go down before, but do any of this year's contenders have the firepower to go up against a historic collection of talent? Most may have penciled in the Bulldogs for their first National Title, and it makes sense. With that being said, it is March; expect the unexpected.