The path to immortality is laid clearly before them: Six wins separate the Gonzaga Bulldogs from not only their first national championship in program history but also a spot on the Mount Rushmore of greatest men’s college basketball teams of all time.
In a season marred by pandemic-induced uncertainty, Mark Few’s bunch has been dominant from the opening tip. Gonzaga is 7–0 against the tournament’s top-25 teams. Three of the opponents it has beaten this year—Kansas, Virginia and Iowa—have been placed in the West Region with the Bulldogs, with all three wins coming by double digits. Few might consider a relatively expensive yet tasteful flower arrangement to be sent to committee members as a thank you for such a favorable draw.
But that doesn’t mean that Gonzaga finishing 32–0 is a foregone conclusion. To become the first men's team in 45 years to run the table, the Zags will face plenty of steep tests. As a forecast for the Bulldogs’ road to the mountaintop, let’s take a look at the top five potential stumbling blocks they could face as they embark on another journey to chase down that elusive national title.
No. 4 Virginia (West Region)
Gonzaga’s potential Sweet 16 opponent is a familiar foe. Virginia didn’t put up too much of a fight when the two sides met on Dec. 26, as the Bulldogs shot 60.3% from the field and led by as many as 33 in a 98–75 smackdown. The Cavaliers are still the defending champs, though, and they’ve made strides defensively in the second half of the season. The key for Virginia in a rematch would be to somehow dictate the pace. Gonzaga averages nearly 75 possessions per 40 minutes—fourth-most nationally—while Virginia ranks dead last at 60.1 possessions. Turning the game into a grind-it-out rock fight rather than a track meet is critical for the Hoos to pull off an upset.
No. 6 USC (West Region)
The Trojans’ advantages in an Elite Eight matchup with Gonzaga would be length at nearly every position. USC is among the best defensive teams in the country, particularly at protecting the rim. Anchored by center Evan Mobley, USC ranks second nationally in opponents’ two-point field goal percentage (42.2%) and seventh in blocked shots per game (5.3). Gonzaga’s bigs—Drew Timme and WCC Player of the Year Corey Kispert—are extremely skilled but smaller than Mobley and his frontcourt mate, older brother Isaiah Mobley. Winning the battle of the boards and forcing Gonzaga to score primarily from the perimeter would be the focal point for the Trojans.
No. 2 Alabama (East Region)
Alabama is one of the few title contenders that can match Gonzaga’s pace. The Tide rank ninth nationally in adjusted tempo, second-highest among tournament teams behind only Gonzaga. Nate Oats’s bunch ranks second in the country in defensive efficiency and could stand toe-to-toe with Gonzaga’s buzz saw of an offense. Alabama’s reliance on three-pointers makes this somewhat of a high-variance group, but a hot night of shooting could mean an exit for Gonzaga in a potential Final Four matchup.
No. 1 Baylor (South Region)
In our first of two possible opponents in the national championship game, Baylor’s recipe for success against Gonzaga is simple: continue to go scorched earth from behind the arc. The Bears shoot 41.8% on three-point attempts, tops in the country. The old tournament axiom states that guard play dictates success in March, and no team boasts a better group than Baylor’s trio of Jared Butler, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell. Once viewed as an inevitability before Baylor stumbled in Big 12 play after a COVID-19 pause, sign us up for what would be a ridiculously entertaining national title game.
No. 1 Illinois (Midwest Region)
Winner of 14 of its last 15 games, Illinois comes into the Big Dance scalding hot and possessing all the tools needed to be the last team standing. Four of its last five wins have been against teams seeded No. 1 or No. 2, and the one-two punch of Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn is clicking at the right time. Illinois is an excellent rebounding team, and while Cockburn is an overwhelming presence on the block, its guards also crash the boards effectively. Though the Illini are not a great free-throw-shooting team (69.1%), they draw a lot of fouls and rank 13th nationally in free-throw attempts per game (23.1). Getting Gonzaga—which has a relatively thin rotation—into foul trouble would go a long way toward Illinois capturing its first NCAA tournament title.
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