Undefeated Gonzaga chasing 1976 Indiana, perfection and college basketball history in NCAA Tournament
Gongaza figures since it’s in Indiana, it might as well find a way to stay a while.
And the way to stay not only for this month, but for eternity is to join the Hoosiers in the NCAA record books. The Bulldogs are the latest undefeated challenger to Indiana’s magical 1975-76 undefeated season, which ended with Indiana finishing 32-0 with an NCAA championship win over Michigan.
There have been challengers over the years, but all fell short.
In the seasons since, Gonzaga will be the fifth team to enter the NCAA Tournament with a perfect record. The previous four were not able to complete what Bob Knight’s Hoosiers did 35 years ago.
Larry Bird thought he could take Indiana State all the way, but Magic Johnson and the Spartans upended that pursuit in the historic 1979 championship game. Indiana State finished 33-1. More than a decade later, in 1991, defending champion UNLV believed it had the swagger and goods, but Jerry Tarkanian’s 34-0 Runnin’ Rebels fell short in the Final Four, when they lost to Duke. It was a rematch of the 1990 championship game. In 2015, the uber-talented (but also young) Kentucky Wildcats were 38-0 but upset by the Wisconsin Badgers in the Final Four. Wichita State made for what would have been the most-unlikely candidate in 2014, but the 35-0 Shockers were nuked only in the second round by No. 8-seed Kentucky.
It’s a herculean task.
At the very least, teams of college-aged adults have off days. It’s excusable, especially in such a weird year as this.
But Gonzaga hasn’t had many hiccups, certainly any that have resulted in losses, this season. Mark Few’s Bulldogs are 26-0 in this COVID-shortened season, having won all 15 of their games in the WCC. They’ve dominated many, with an average winning margin of 23 this season. They start their NCAA Tournament quest Saturday night.
But it’s not as if the Zags have dodged opponents, playing only in a soft conference — outside of BYU, there was not much in terms of worthy foes in the West Coast this season — but no one else. Nah, they beat Kansas (then-No. 5, but now an NCAA 3 seed) by a dozen in the opener. They beat then-No. 11 West Virginia (an NCAA 3 seed today) by 5 in the Jimmy V Classic in Indianapolis. They popped then-No. 3 Iowa (a No. 2 seed), in an defense-optional game, by 11 in mid-December. And they smoked offensively-challenged then-No. 15 Virginia (which earned a 4 seed) by 23 less than two weeks later.
Gonzaga is almost absurdly balanced, with six players who average more than 7.2 points per game, three of whom — Corey Kispert, Drew Timme and Jalen Suggs — are liable to take over a game at any one moment. It might, in that way, be most like the ’91 Rebels, led by Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon, who could roll up teams simply by outscoring them, getting into the open court to overwhelm opponents on the run.
The Zags, who shot 55.1% this season as a team, are certainly capable of doing that, but they’re also able to settle into a halfcourt to get looks, too. That’s made easier when six guys are shooting better than 33% from long distance and with a couple of efficient post players who made near or better than 60% of their shots from the paint.
But could UNLV’s weakness also be that of Gonzaga?
In 1991, UNLV was involved in only one single-digit game the whole season (a crazy 112-105 win at No. 2 Arkansas), mowing through the Big West with an 18-0 record. But when it met a veteran Duke squad in the national semifinals, with the Blue Devils seeking revenge for its 30-point title game loss to UNLV a year earlier, the Runnin’ Rebels were unaccustomed to playing in a back-and-forth game. And Christian Laettner’s two free throws with 12 seconds remaining, in the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis, was the difference in the Duke victory, which ended the Rebels’ 45-game winning streak.
Will Gonzaga face the same problem?
Is it unprepared to play in a game that could come down to the last couple of possessions?
The old ’76 Hoosiers, who were led by veterans Quinn Buckner, Scott May and Kent Benson, certainly hope so, if they want to see their standing as the last undefeated title team stay intact.
Luckily for the Zags, their last game might have prepped them the best. The Bulldogs trailed by 14 late in the first half of the WCC championship game March 9 in Las Vegas, allowing BYU to score 53 points in the first half. Gonzaga rallied to a 10-point win — afterward Few said the Bulldogs had been “punched in the mouth” — but the uppercut might have served as a wake-up call.
Gongaza will be able to overwhelm many in the first couple rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The Sweet 16 matchup could bring No. 4-seed Virginia, but we saw what happened when the teams met earlier this year. And the Cavaliers are dealing with COVID issues, which complicates their path. And 2 seed Iowa, the potential Elite Eight game, lost to the Zags by 11. The Final Four in Indianapolis, where UNLV and ’15 Kentucky saw their undefeated bids end, will likely present the biggest challenge.
The old Hoosiers will be watching nearby.
Kyle Charters covers Big Ten basketball and football for Saturday Tradition.