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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga closing in on undefeated regular season with Santa Clara next in line

Gonzaga assistant coach Roger Powell Jr. watches the action against Northwestern State on Dec. 22, a 95-78 Bulldogs home victory.  (By Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Unbeaten regular seasons in college basketball are rare and the teams that have even come close make up a short list.

That makes Roger Powell Jr.’s perspective even more unique. He’s experienced lengthy unbeaten rides as a senior at Illinois in 2005 and as a second-year Gonzaga assistant coach.

The top-ranked Bulldogs are 22-0 with home dates against Santa Clara on Thursday and Loyola Marymount on Saturday in the regular-season finale, presuming GU doesn’t add a game prior to the WCC Tournament semifinals on March 8.

“As a player, you’re just thinking one game at a time and you’re not thinking about (going undefeated), at least it was for me,” Powell said. “As a coach, you definitely can’t think about it because you’re focusing on the next game and what do we have to do to get better.”

This is familiar territory for Gonzaga, which was 29-0 when BYU pulled off an upset at the McCarthey Athletic Center in the 2017 regular-season finale.

The Zags and second-ranked Baylor (18-0) are in the running to join three teams – Kentucky (2015), Wichita State (2014) and Saint Joseph’s (2004) – to post unbeaten regular seasons during Mark Few’s 22 years as Gonzaga’s head coach.

Wisconsin knocked off the unbeaten Wildcats in the 2015 Final Four. Wichita State’s only loss came against Kentucky in the 2014 second round. Saint Joseph’s lost to Xavier by 20 in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, then fell to Oklahoma State in the 2004 Elite Eight.

Only 19 squads have entered the NCAA Tournament with unblemished records since the first NCAA Tournament in 1939. Seven became unbeaten NCAA champions – the last being Indiana in 1976.

“You don’t get this opportunity a lot. It was my senior year as a player and this is my first time as a coach,” Powell said. “You try to focus on the process and get better and it just kind of happens. Even last year, we were 31-2 and you don’t even notice.”

Powell’s team faced rugged Big Ten competition, largely before the explosion of social media.

“Even with (social media), we don’t talk about it that much,” Powell said of GU. “This is a mature group, enjoying playing basketball and happy to be playing games, which isn’t a given in this day we’re in (with COVID-19).”

Illinois’ 2005 season was nearly a mirror image of the 2017 Zags, including a narrow title-game loss to North Carolina. The Illini were 29-0 when they traveled to face Ohio State in the regular-season finale. Illinois led by 11 at half and by six with 3:25 left.

The Buckeyes scored the last seven points, including a 3-pointer by reserve forward Matt Sylvester with 5 seconds remaining. Sylvester scored 25 points, eight above his previous career high. Powell’s desperation 3-point attempt was off target at the buzzer.

“We were mad, upset,” said Powell, one of five Illinois starters who eventually played in the NBA. “Then it was, ‘OK, let’s refocus, go ahead and win every game.’ It stunk, but we ended up winning out until (facing North Carolina). We literally had the same record as Gonzaga (37-2) when they went to the championship game.”

Powell sees parallels between the Zags’ demeanor and the 2005 Illini.

“They’re kind of locked in,” Powell said. “Obviously, the goal they want is to cut down the nets at the end and this is a big deal for the guys that are back that didn’t get a chance last year (when the tournament was canceled).”