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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gonzaga has been the best program in college basketball except for that one little thing

The Gonzaga Bulldogs will once again be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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LAS VEGAS — Here they come yet again, America, barreling out of the hush near the Washington-Idaho border to ride another one of those ornery roulette wheels of March.

Can they win it all?

Sure.

Can they not win it all?

Sure.

Are we a bunch of lunatics?

Sure.

We’re about to take the Gonzaga male Bulldogs, their peerless 20-6 NCAA tournament record since 2015, their 253-28 record overall since 2015, their five No. 1 seedings in the past six years (four official, one unofficial), and we’re about to hold the freshly ritual discussion about what they lack.

They lack the national title even after two recent runs to the closing Monday, in 2017 and 2021, and two recent runs to the final eight, in 2015 and 2019, so that’s the thing now because that’s how it works in a culture that prizes three weeks in early spring over four months of hard winter. Even the mad people who dwell within the game, such as coaches, often give it away when warbling about their national championships above their other teams that might have been superior except that the mean old wheel chucked them from the fray one way or another.

In this situation, a coach such as Mark Few might reach for two truths and commit one mild foible after winning yet another West Coast Conference tournament — it’s somewhere around 18 now; yeah, 18 — as Gonzaga did by 82-69 in a fine fight Tuesday night with Madness-bound Saint Mary’s.

Truth No. 1: It’s hard to get those seedings.

At least twice on Tuesday night, he combed through those No. 1 seedings — “So that’s ’17, ’19, ’20, ’21 and ’22,” he said — a truth even given the grim cancellation of ‘20.

“Everybody focuses on the NCAA tournament,” he said accurately, “but remember, to be a number one seed, that’s a reward for four months of going out, and especially the way we schedule, playing the best of the best, and then battling everybody in our conference that gives you their best effort, their crowds’ best effort of the year when they play us, when everybody’s looking to knock us off and storm the floor.”

For those non-freaks, that’s 26-3 this year, with wins over Texas, UCLA, Texas Tech and that admirable Bellarmine, the losses to Duke (by 84-81), Alabama (by 91-82) and Saint Mary's (by 67-57), all adding up to an overall seeding set to be No. 1.

And he might go for the old fresh-puzzle angle, also a truth. Every year really is a fresh puzzle.

“I think one of the biggest overlooked things this whole season, being ranked number one this preseason, was how much we lost,” Few said. “I mean, we lost three guys to the NBA,” and by that he meant Jalen Suggs picked fifth to Orlando, Corey Kispert 15th to Washington and Joel Ayayi to a seven-game stopover in Washington. “And you looked out when we started practice in the fall. Obviously Chet [Holmgren, the 7-foot freshman ranked No. 1 among 2021 recruits] gets a lot of attention, but he’s new. He’s a freshman. He’s new to our program. Rasir’s [Bolton] new to our program. Hunter’s [Sallis] new to our program. Nolan’s [Hickman] new to our program.”

Who’s in? What to know about the NCAA men’s tournament’s automatic bids.

Other kingpins have years when all that newness doesn’t work, when it somehow spills all over the chemistry lab. Gonzaga doesn’t.

But then, a coach who hasn’t missed the Sweet 16 since 2014 might lapse into finding the Sweet 16 normal. From the trophy dais amid Orleans Arena, with the Gonzaga throng roaring from the stands like normal days, Few said into the microphone, “It’s incredible how our fans travel. There’s nobody that travels like this on the West Coast.”

Then he gave those fans further geographical encouragement for the NCAA tournament by saying, “And we’re going to Portland. We’re going to San Francisco.”

That might perk the ears of any coach of a No. 8 or No. 9 seed that gets stationed on a bracket opposite Gonzaga in Portland (first two rounds), striving to get to San Francisco (Sweet 16 and Elite Eight).

His team had just exhibited why such talk seems acceptable, by weathering San Francisco (24-9) and Saint Mary's (25-7), two tournament-bound teams in a league risen to combat near-eternal derision driven in part by eternal Eastern bias. When inconvenienced against Saint Mary's, a 12-point lead pared to two with 7:20 left and Holmgren seated with four fouls, Gonzaga had other shiny guys.

Guards Andrew Nembhard, the mainstay from that risen basketball source everyone calls Canada, and Bolton, from Massanutten Military Academy in Virginia and then Penn State and then Iowa State, led it through the mire and above the muck. Then Nembhard talked like Gonzagans talk, speaking of “trying to read the game” and “keeping my head down” and “I love making plays for this team” and, after the most outstanding player award, “I’m not big on getting recognition; it’s nice to get recognition every so often.”

Such sentiments ring true through the basketball, often brisk and beautiful and prone to having the ball move around the court, and by the tenor, as with mustachioed face-of-program Drew Timme giving his teammates standing-O’s from the bench in closing minutes while Gonzaga protected a lead.

Then they stayed around for a trophy presentation as they do as part of national habits. For 24 years, they have appeared before the country in at least five iterations. They had the where’s-that darling phase around the turn over the century, the phase of limited seeding respect in the early century, the phase of higher seedings but round-of-32 exits up until 2014, the phase of great players inbound from all over the planet like some kingdom with Final Fours not even darling and now the phase of Best Program Lacking a You-Know-What.

It’s important to find happiness in what others find clockwork.

“Yeah, hey, I’m really happy, really happy,” Few said. “You know, when you see the players at the end of this thing out there on the floor. You see them there with their families. You know what was said during the recruiting process. And I know I speak for our staff, we just feel good on delivering what we talked about this experience being for their sons.”

That did sound genuine, amid a mad country within a mad month with one more question from the harrumphing dialect of sports: You going to win that title sometime?

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