INDIANAPOLIS – The visual metaphor would have had them outside Lucas Oil Stadium, noses pressed against the glass, sorrowful. Maybe bitter.
But Admon Gilder Jr. and Ryan Woolridge were very much inside the house on Saturday night, inside the vibe that’s been percolating for five months – and inside the heart of Gonzaga basketball. Still.
They have every right to feel cheated.
But they have refused their consent.
“This is just exciting,” said Woolridge, whose demeanor suggested goose bumps under his Gonzaga hoodie.
If the Bulldogs do consummate their quest for a national championship Monday night – undefeated, the only way it can happen now – the unanswered question will forever be: Could it have been two in a row?
The outbreak of COVID-19 hurried the NCAA to shut down college basketball 13 months ago, without a chance to revive it the way baseball, the NBA and other sporting enterprises were able to salvage something out of 2020.
That meant no championship for anyone – Kansas, Baylor, upstart Dayton, Duke.
The Zags were a lock to be one of the 2020 tournament’s four No. 1 seeds, having been in that spot in the mid-February bracket tease the NCAA engages in and then sweeping through the West Coast Conference tournament. Even better: For the first time, they would have started their NCAA expedition with two games in Spokane. Their city had hosted tournament games before, but never when the Bulldogs were accomplished enough to earn that advantage.
But as the Zags were flying home the Wednesday after winning the WCCs, other conference tournaments started pulling the plug, and the NCAA announced its tournament would be played without fans.
Just 24 hours later, Mark Few had to gather his players and break the even worse news: no tournament at all.
“It was disappointing,” Gilder admitted. “Especially for a guy like Ryan whose (former) school hadn’t been able to play in March Madness and who came to Gonzaga to win a national championship. I did, too. We were looking forward to it but, you know, that’s a part of life. At the end of the day, we’re just happy for these guys right now.
“And here to help celebrate with them, as well.”
This is where it gets very much Gonzaga.
Four players on the 2020 Bulldogs would not return in 2021. Two had experienced NCAA runs with the Zags. Two had not – Gilder and Woolridge, graduate transfers who had come to GU for their final seasons.
The brainstorm belonged to assistant coach Tommy Lloyd: Why not give them a taste?
Rian Oliver in the athletics compliance office reached out to the NCAA to explain the circumstances. And in a burst of warm-heartedness we’re not ever sure the organization is capable of – and deserves applause for here – it gave Gonzaga leave to fly the two players to Indianapolis from their Texas homes and put them up during the Final Four.
Not with the team. A bubble is still a bubble.
“But everyone has been able to see them,” said GU athletic director Mike Roth, “and our fans have been able to say hello, and it’s just been pretty special to have them here.”
And even more so for Gilder and Woolridge.
“This is my first time at an NCAA Tournament,” said Woolridge, who played at San Diego and North Texas before arriving at Gonzaga, “so this is just incredible for me. Just to see my friends, my old teammates, and have them doing so well.”
The 2020 Zags had only two more losses than this team but were decidedly different. With Filip Petrusev, Killian Tillie and Drew Timme they retained more of their low-post identity from past years. Gilder and Woolridge were vital additions – and not just because, as Few once confided in a joking-not-joking vein, “We only had one guy who could dribble.”
But the 2021 Zags aren’t so different in another respect.
“I like the way they share the ball,” said Gilder, who twice played in the NCAAs at Texas A&M. “But that’s part of Gonzaga. It’s why we went there. Everybody can play, and it can be someone new having the hot night.”
The sharing goes on after they leave. Woolridge played for seven months in Germany before returning to the states to play for Oklahoma City – and former Bulldog Grant Gibbs – in the G League, and while he couldn’t watch the game overseas, a group chat kept him connected. Likewise, Gilder was on hand when the Bulldogs bullied Virginia in their game in Fort Worth the day after Christmas.
Now they can see – and be a part of – a national championship game. Baylor, too, has three 2020 players – Freddie Gillespie, Devonte Bardoo and Tristan Clark – to share in the moment.
“It means the world to us,” said Woolridge. “It’s everything a player wants for his school, community, the city. For them to pull it off would be the ultimate.”
If they do, maybe they’ll save the 2020 players who missed out a strand of the net.
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