Playing “What if….?” With Gonzaga and the NCAA Tournament


Gonzaga is out of the NCAA Tournament after a historic season, reaching the Elite Eight for the first time since their magical run in 1999. There was a lot to be excited about and proud of for Bulldog fans, although the excitement of having a Final Four team for the first time just barely eluded them once again.

But what if the Bulldogs had gotten over the hump, and they were one of the teams all over the news this week leading up to today’s games? What would people be saying about them? How would they have fared against the best teams in the nation with a championship on the line? We are imaging what life would be like if Gonzaga was playing this weekend.

The Bulldogs likely would have been able to sit quietly in the background before their Final Four game with Michigan State. Undefeated Kentucky and NCAA Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin would likely have kept most of the headlines on that side of the bracket. In fact, you probably would have seen a lot publications proclaiming that was the real title game, that whoever won that one should have no trouble in the finals.

Mar 29, 2015; Syracuse, NY, USA; Michigan State Spartans head coach Tom Izzo talks to Michigan State Spartans guard Travis Trice (20) during the second half against the Louisville Cardinals in the finals of the east regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Even talk about the Gonzaga game likely would have been focused around Michigan State and how Tom Izzo just knows how win in March. Despite being a much higher seed and coming off a shocker over Duke, a lot of pundits would probably be picking the Spartans to upset the Bulldogs. Which in a way, would suit them just fine. Gonzaga is an underdog in almost any major game due to their status as a WCC team, so the pressure would be off them. They could go out with nothing to lose having already done what no Gonzaga team had done before by making a Final Four.

We know by now they absolutely could have given the Spartans a game. They have been dominant all year, and came close at times to having a chance at beating Duke. Between that game and nearly knocking off Elite Eight team Arizona during the regular season, there’s no reason to think that the Bulldogs couldn’t make it a competitive game even in a loss.

We would have enjoyed some really good matchups if the Spartans and Bulldogs had met. The high-scoring Travis Trice would have been locked in a fast-paced struggle with Kevin Pangos the whole game. Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis, and Przemek Karnowski would have had some great battles inside with athletic big men Denzel Valentine and Branden Dawson of Michigan State. And x-factors like Byron Wesley for Gonzaga and Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello for MSU could have produced some highlight-worthy plays in a close game.

Both teams are very complete, have a lot of depth, and great coaches. If Wiltjer had a big game, Sabonis and Karnowski slowed down Dawson and Valentine, and Pangos was able to keep pace with Trice, the Bulldogs would have had a great shot at pulling out a win.

Life around Spokane and in the WCC would have reached a fever pitch if they Bulldogs made the title game. It’s been decades since the WCC has been that close to a national championship in a major sport, especially basketball. And to possibly be facing the great Kentucky, it would go down as one of the greatest games in WCC history even if the Bulldogs got blown out.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to see a miracle championship happening. If you thought Duke was deep and athletic, Kentucky is on a whole other level. Even at their best, it’s hard to see the Bulldogs slowing enough of the Wildcats down to have a chance. They are just too deep, and have another three guys who can step up if you slow one of them down. And while reaching the final game would be amazing, watching them have a rough time against a superior team is less than ideal. Top recruits might question if Gonzaga can ever be good enough, and that’s not what you want recruits thinking.

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Let’s not forget that despite all the success of former Cinderella teams like Butler and VCU, they haven’t become consistently elite teams. Yes they have consistent success like Gonzaga a regularly reach the NCAA Tournament, but they aren’t competing for national titles. In some ways, getting blown out by Kentucky on the national stage would harm the Zags more than it would help them. Their actual outcome against Duke is perfect because they went deep in the tournament and competed well against one of the best teams in the nation. A top recruit can look at that and think they might be able to help get the Zags over the top versus watching a blowout loss and assuming they won’t ever get over that hump.

This loss breeds hope. A hope that the Bulldogs are right on the cusp of greatness. Fans, coaches, potential recruits, they allhave unlimited ability to imagine all kinds of Final Four scenarios, just like we’re doing in this article. You can convince people that the Bulldogs might have had a chance against Kentucky. If the game had actually happened and the Bulldogs lost big, that sense of eternal optimism goes away. It’s a nice silver lining for fans who are still feeling the sting of coming a game away from the Final Four. And a great selling point for the program. Don’t believe we can beat a Kentucky? Come play for us and let’s find out!

While Wisconsin doesn’t have the same notoriety as Kentucky, that would be a very difficult matchup too. Kaminsky is an elite player, certainly deserving of being considered the best player in college basketball this year. He would terrorize the bigs of Gonzaga while Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes rained down shots. The Bulldogs might have kept it close for a while if the Badgers were not shooting well, and it certainly would be closer than if they faced Kentucky. But the elite talent of the Badgers would probably prevail in the end.

It was a great end for the Bulldogs, one they can be proud of, and it’s a great building block for the future. But still, it would have been exciting to see them take that next step, especially considering some of the Final Four teams this year are beatable and this is one of the best and most complete Gonzaga teams ever. Hopefully sometime soon, we will finally see the dream become a reality and get Gonzaga in a Final Four. Despite the feeling that this was a great opportunity that was missed this year, they are closer than ever and may not be far away from making it finally.