Gonzaga’s past three NCAA Tournament runs finished at different junctures, varying degrees short of a national championship, against defensive-minded opponents that each found effective ways to keep the Bulldogs’ highly potent offense in check.
All three results – an Elite Eight loss to Texas Tech in 2019, a national championship loss to Baylor in 2021 and a Sweet 16 loss to Arkansas in 2022 – sent Gonzaga players back to the locker room swelling with tears upon realizing they wouldn’t be part of the group that captured the program’s first national title.
Those emotions inevitably followed the 2021-22 Zags into the offseason.
“The moment is raw, very raw,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few said last Thursday after a 74-68 loss to Arkansas at the Chase Center in San Francisco. “Then time gives you a much better perspective.”
Few should know. He’s guided Gonzaga to 23 consecutive tournament appearances – the third-longest streak in the country behind Kansas (32) and Michigan State (24) – but the Bulldogs are still gunning for the program’s first national championship, meaning every season since 1999-2000 has ended in similar fashion. That is, with a loss at some stage of the NCAA Tournament.
The 2021 Zags were agonizingly close to capping an undefeated season with the national title before losing 86-70 to Baylor in the national title game, prompting a similar response from Few in the postgame interview.
“It’s obviously a feeling these guys have never had to address and deal with,” he said. “I think the nature of it tonight, it’s not easy, but you just as a coach try to give them as much perspective as you can and as is the case with everything, time will lend them the best perspective.”
In 2019, another No. 1-seeded Gonzaga team fell short, losing 75-69 to Texas Tech in Anaheim, California. Postgame images from the loss depicted point guard Josh Perkins walking back to the locker room, head down, as forward Brandon Clarke trailed behind with a towel over his head.
Putting the loss into perspective, Few told reporters, “(It) hurts really bad right now but once time clears, I think they’ll sit back and realize just how awesome it was.”
Few characterized Gonzaga’s 2021-22 campaign as “spectacular” on more than one occasion in his interview last Thursday. The Bulldogs entered the year ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25, never slipped outside the top five in the weekly poll and finished the year on top of the national rankings. The nine weeks Gonzaga spent at No. 1 – over three stints – were the most by any team this season.
“It was just so easy to coach. So you praise them and thank them for that,” Few said. “Like I told them, time will give them better perspective. We started this season No. 1 and ended the regular season No. 1. There wasn’t anybody in college basketball that could hold onto it. We were the only ones that could, and they deserve a lot of credit for that. Took everybody’s best shot, and we just couldn’t get it done against Arkansas’ shot tonight.”
After earning a third consecutive No. 1 seed at the NCAA Tournament – a feat no other program can share – the Bulldogs advanced to a seventh straight Sweet 16, extending their national record. They were one of three No. 1 seeds that failed to advance past the Sweet 16 of this year’s tournament, joining Arizona and Baylor.
“I think sometimes the outside people that aren’t in our program are always label it with the, hey, national championship or bust,” Few said. “I think we’re more – obviously, we wanted to take this thing all the way to the end and win it, but we understand just how hard that is and just how hard it is to make the tournament, how hard it is to win a league as good as the WCC was this year, and advance even to the Sweet 16.”
The Bulldogs dealt with the weight of preseason expectations – early on, they were picked as a betting favorite to win the national championship – as they worked to rebuild a roster that lost three players from the starting lineup, including two fourth-year senior leaders in Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi who were well-versed in Few’s system.
A cast of newcomers that included Iowa State transfer Rasir Bolton and highly touted freshmen Chet Holmgren, Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman didn’t have much time to get up to speed before Gonzaga played nationally ranked opponents such as Texas, UCLA, Duke, Alabama and Texas Tech. The Zags went 3-2 in those games and won 17 consecutive before losing at Saint Mary’s.
“(They were) incredibly easy on a coach because, like Drew (Timme) just said, they showed up to work every single day, picked up on things really quick,” Few said. “Was never an envious or jealous moment with all the attention and notoriety and NIL entering into the picture and all that.”
With more than two decades of practice, Gonzaga’s coach put the season into perspective quicker than most of his players, who were counting on a cross-country trip to New Orleans this week to play in another Final Four.
“This was an incredible year, and these guys delivered night in and night out from the start,” he said. “Obviously, we wanted to take this thing to New Orleans and bring home a championship, but only one team is going to be able to do that, and they’ll be really, really good, and they’ll probably have some good fortune smile on them in order for that to happen.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Follow along with the Zags
Subscribe to our Gonzaga Basketball newsletter to stay up with the latest news.