Gonzaga’s loss to UNC puts spotlight back on Arizona
Immediately after his Bulldogs fell to the North Carolina Tar Heels 71-65 Monday night, Gonzaga coach Mark Few talked about his program getting as far as it did.
“I couldn’t be prouder,” he said. “They absolutely ignited a lot of stale people that were kind of bored with the Zags and saying that we haven’t been capable of achieving something like this.
“I think they got the whole world behind them and believing in them.”
For much of Monday night’s game, it was reasonable to believe Gonzaga was going to win a title.
Their backcourt of Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins was having its way early, and through 20 minutes the only real knock against the Bulldogs was that their lead should have been more than just the three points it was.
Things got hairy in the second half, with the Tar Heels opening on an 8-0 run to take the lead, which would then see-saw a few more times throughout the rest of the game.
Yet, with 1:55 remaining, a Williams-Goss jump shot made the score 65-63, Bulldogs.
They would not score again.
So close. So very, very close.
“I mean, I think it was good for the Zags to get to the national championship game,” Williams-Goss said after it was all over. “We did a lot of things that people didn’t expect us to do this year. And we put in the work. And we were right there, good enough to win a national championship.”
The idea that Gonzaga was not supposed to do any of this is a bit off; they were preseason No. 14 and spent four weeks atop the AP Poll, finishing the regular season with just one loss.
The doubters came from the fact that their schedule, featuring a healthy dose of West Coast Conference teams, does not offer much of a challenge. However, wins over Florida, Iowa State, Arizona and Saint Mary’s three times — along with their NCAA Tournament run — show that indeed, this team was good. Really, really good.
“I mean, how many teams would take 37-2, league champs, national runner-up?” Jordan Mathews asked, rhetorically. “We broke that glass ceiling everybody said we couldn’t get over. Everybody was saying how the Zags couldn’t get to the Final Four. So we did that.”
Yes, they did. Gonzaga finally made it to the Final Four after decades of being among the best programs in the country to have never done so. That they were considered a mid-major is somewhat irrelevant, as for years Few’s program has been among the best in the country.
Unfortunately, while the Zags did break their own glass ceiling, they were unable to punch through the brick wall that stands between the western part of the United States and March Madness glory.
To wit: the last team from left side of the country to win the title was Arizona, way back in 1997.
But hey, at least Gonzaga ended the drought of west coast teams getting to the title game, which had grown to 10 seasons since UCLA last made it in 2006.
At least there’s that.
And now, a new season.
With that comes a chance for a team in this part of the country to come through, and there should be a handful of them — including Gonzaga, UCLA, Oregon and maybe even USC and Saint Mary’s — who could be in the conversation.
Yet, while no doubt a lot still has to be determined before anyone should really try to predict what will happen in 2017-18, a look at the self-admitted way-too-early polls shows the Arizona Wildcats at or near the top.
SI.com’s Seth Davis has Arizona No. 1, noting how he expects Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins to return and join top recruit DeAndre Ayton.
SportingNews’ Ryan Fagan feels the same, writing that if the Wildcats who are on the fence about returning come back, Sean Miller’s team will again be loaded with talent.
The LV Superbook is less excited about Arizona, though their current odds of 15/1 are eighth-best overall, behind Kentucky, Louisville, Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Villanova and Gonzaga.
No doubt, Arizona figures to be quite good once again. Gone for sure will be senior Kadeem Allen, who is graduating, and Lauri Markkanen, who is leaving school for the NBA. After that, Trier, Alkins or Kobi Simmons are all possibilities to leave the program.
The Wildcats are adding one of the nation’s better recruiting classes, headlined by Ayton but elevated by guard Alex Barcello and forwards Ira Lee and Brandon Randolph, all of whom arrive in Tucson with ratings of at least four stars. And they might not yet be done adding to the roster.
As any Arizona fan would surely tell you, however, simply having great talent is not enough to guarantee postseason success. See this season, in which the Cats fell to Xavier in the Sweet 16.
“It’s never easy when it ends, especially if you have a great team or if you had a great season,” Miller said after the season-ending defeat. “I think it’s always important, especially as the leader of our team and our program, that we define our own success.
“I think if you’re a team that is 32-5, you win both the Pac-12 regular season and also the Pac-12 Tournament and our journey ends in the Sweet 16, it’s hard to look at that as not getting it done or a failure, but our goal and aspiration is always to challenge for a Final Four and get there, and we pulled up short.”
The Wildcats, like the Bulldogs this year, have their own glass ceiling to break through. Though they have been to the Final Four and even won a national championship, their fan base also is at a point where just being good is not good enough.
Fair or not, they want more.
And maybe, roughly one year from now, they’ll get it.