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March Madness: Who's to blame for Gonzaga basketball's early exit?

ByBryan Armetta

Published on Mon Mar 28 2022

|

4 min read

March Madness: Who's to blame for Gonzaga basketball's early exit?

In a stunning turn of events, top overall seed Gonzaga was bounced from the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night, failing to advance farther than the Sweet Sixteen. The Zags, coming off a near-perfect season in 2021, are once again left without an elusive national championship. Now facing an offseason where they may lose their best players, it's fair for fans in Spokane to wonder what caused the team's collapse. The answer may be key to the success of future Gonzaga attempts at a title.

A 'Few' Concerns

Figuring out that Gonzaga is 'cursed' seems fairly easy; no team in the past quarter-century of college basketball has come so close to a title without winning one. Under head coach Mark Few, the team has made the tournament 23 times, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen ten times and the Final Four twice.

After last year's stunning loss to Baylor in the championship game, hoops fans were more wary of backing Gonzaga to win it all, but the team's talent made them undeniable contenders. With the dominant big man duo of Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren, along with talented supporting players like Andrew Nembhard, Julian Strawther, and Rasir Bolton, the Zags had star power and depth. Unfortunately for them, it seemed as if no one could get anything going against Arkansas outside of Timme, who finished the game with 25 points.

Much like the Baylor game, the true difference was sloppy play against Arkansas. Both defenses managed to use their speed and athleticism to force Gonzaga into turnovers, which allowed for the Bears and Hogs to extend their lead and stifle any runs on the other end. While the head coach isn't responsible for a team's atrocious shooting (37.5 percent from the field, 23.8 from three), Few does bear some blame for the team's shortcomings. In response to reporters, he took solace in Gonzaga's season-long consistency despite their disappointing tournament. However, given Gonzaga's typically weaker competition in the West Coast Conference, Few's words came off as trying to save face.

It's hard to call for Gonzaga to play in a tougher league when a) their non-conference schedule is usually among the best in the nation and b) without a football program, their fit in nearly every other conference is impractical. Still, the Zags straight-up stumbled throughout March Madness, even prior to the Arkansas game. Against 16 seed Georgia State, the Zags led by just two points at halftime. In the Round of 32, Gonzaga came back from a ten-point halftime deficit to sneak by 9 seed Memphis by a score of 82-78. Although wins are at a premium this time of year, the top seed in the tournament typically coasts through at least one of their games during the first weekend. The signs were there that this team was not operating at its best prior to the Sweet Sixteen. That leaves Few and the coaching staff somewhat responsible for another late season letdown.

Inconsistency Kills

Outside of coaching, the blame for Gonzaga's shortcomings still lies primarily with the players. Although most of the Zags' starting five had moments of brilliance during the tournament, they usually followed them up with disappointing performances. For example, Andrew Nembhard had a fantastic game against Memphis, putting up 25 points and leading the team to a comeback win. However, he had a combined 16 points on 5-of-18 shooting in the Round of 64 and Sweet 16.

Drew Timme, a two-time All American, was dominant in the tournament, averaging 27.3 points per game. Elsewhere, the Zags looked extremely vulnerable on offense, as no player other than Timme averaged more than 13 points. That's a shocking statistic for a team that spent much of the regular season relying heavily on its depth. Even with Timme playing arguably the best basketball of his decorated career, the top seed in the tournament couldn't crack three wins.

While Gonzaga had maintained most of the scoring prowess that made it such a formidable team last season, this year's group proved incapable of overcoming mental mistakes and poor shooting. The Zags shot a horrific .288 percent from three during March Madness, accompanied by a 59.5 percent rate at the free throw line. They still may have been able to make a run if not for their lackadaisical ball-handling against Arkansas, which saw the team give away a possession 14 times.

In the end, there's no simple fix that will deliver Gonzaga a national title. 'Next year's champion' can't necessarily look to statistics to answer all their questions. Perhaps the roster was too big-man dominant, leaving the team vulnerable against the high-energy, press-heavy defenses teams like Arkansas and Baylor utilize against opposing backcourts. Maybe Few needs to change up how the team practices late in the season, or how they schedule opponents.

The most likely reason is that March Madness is the most chaotic, pain-inducing tournament in sports, and there's simply no point in stressing over its unpredictability. Gonzaga needs to get better if it wants a title, and Few's legacy as the 21st century's (second) greatest program-builder feels incomplete without it. Still, that doesn't nullify all that Gonzaga has accomplished. Make no mistake about it: this is a great program, just with some not-so-great luck.

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