Gonzaga has constructed the quietest undefeated NCAA Division I basketball season in our lifetimes, and this is true both literally and physically. The Zags have played all of their games in arenas that either were devoid of spectators, or quite close to it. The cacophony that often presents their greatest obstacle to perfection in conference play was absent because of restrictions related to COVID-19.
The Zags became the fifth team to enter the NCAA Tournament with a perfect record since Indiana compiled the last undefeated championship season in 1976, and their attempt to match the Hoosiers’ achievement will define the 2021 edition of March Madness.
It will get loud now, even with limited attendance at these games. The 2021 tournament will be played entirely in the state of Indiana, nearly all of it in the city of Indianapolis, and it’s almost as if there is a Curse of the Hoosiers at work to protect the legacy of Quinn Buckner, Scott May, Kent Benson and all the rest.
Those three and coach Bob Knight were at the core of the Indiana squad that completed the 1975-76 season with an 86-68 victory over Big Ten rival Michigan. That was the Hoosiers’ 32nd victory of the season. There were no defeats. And, it seems, they’re still beating everyone that tries to match that accomplishment.
UNLV brought its overwhelming 1991 squad to Indianapolis and the Hoosier Dome for the Final Four, and there the Curse ended the Runnin’ Rebels’ run of perfection with some help from the Duke Blue Devils in the NCAA Tournament semifinals. A quarter-century later, Kentucky arrived at Lucas Oil Stadium and the Final Four with nine future NBA players and 38 consecutive wins. This time it was the Wisconsin Badgers who were blessed by the Curse and took out the Wildcats in the semis.
If the Zags advance that far through the bracket, they may face something even more daunting than two extraordinary college basketball teams.
After rallying from a from a double-digit deficit in the second half of the West Coast Conference title game against BYU, the Zags won the last of their 26 games prior to the tournament. If that seems like not a lot given the non-pandemic schedules teams have played in recent decades, be aware that more than half of the previous 19 teams that entered the NCAA Tournament without a loss played that many games or fewer.
The trick for the Zags now is to convince themselves they’re 0-0, that being undefeated was not the goal at the start of the season. The NCAA championship is what they wanted. It’s the only thing, now, that Gonzaga basketball has yet to accomplish. They’ve been ranked No. 1. They’ve reached 21 consecutive NCAA Tournaments. They’ve been a No. 1 seed four times. They’ve been to the Final Four and national championship game, in 2017. A championship is the final frontier.
There is annually a significant talent gap between the Zags and most of the other teams in the West Coast Conference. They have recorded five unbeaten league seasons under coach Mark Few and have won 91 percent of their WCC games.
So they have come close to reaching the NCAAs undefeated before, most notably in 2017, when they entered the final day of the regular season at 29-0 before falling to BYU at home.
In a typical year, though, Gonzaga’s trips to such WCC opponents as Santa Clara, San Francisco or Pepperdine, or especially St. Mary’s, are viewed on the home team’s campus as an opportunity to pack the gym to get a glimpse of a great team and attempt to diminish it, if only for a night. With the audience participation element of those road games absent, the Zags won by an average of 19 points and never by less than a double-digit margin.
This was a significant problem for UNLV in 1991, when the Rebels were 34-0 entering the Final Four and had only one game, a victory at Arkansas, decided by a single-digit margin. When Duke challenged the Rebels in the final minutes, they did not recognize how to respond. It was a circumstance for which they were unprepared, and they let a smallish, late lead slip away.
When they were tested in the WCC title game, All-American wing Corey Kispert and head coach Mark Few both expressed a sense of relief that they’d finally been challenged by someone, anyone, and found a way to prevail. And, of course, to remain perfect.
“We have not talked about it, prior to the aftermath of BYU,” Few told CBS Sports. “We were just dialed into ‘next game,’ and winning.
“I know that’s our mindset with the NCAA Tournament. We’re talking win and advance, win and advance and keep doing what we’ve been doing all year. But I do think it was important, in the time after the BYU game, to tell the guys and acknowledge what an incredible feat it is to be able to go undefeated. When you look at those teams that went into the NCAA Tournament undefeated, that’s quite a group. And in my estimation, it’s an honor to be associated with all those teams.”
It is more of an honor, though, to be associated with 1967 UCLA or 1957 North Carolina or 1956 San Francisco than with 2014 Wichita State or 1979 Indiana State.
Is it weird that every undefeated team since the 1976 Hoosiers played at least some portion of its schedule in Indiana, and that none could stay perfect all the way to end? Wichita State visited both Indiana State and Evansville. Larry Bird’s Sycamores played all their home games in Terre Haute.
Or is that stretching this “curse” thing too hard?
When one is dealing with the supernatural, it’s hard to know what sort of powers are at work.