Gonzaga choked, and it’s Mark Few’s burden to carry.
Recruiting, managing teenagers, and making in-game adjustments are all traits that a good college basketball coach needs to have. But, the most important trait of all is preparedness. Because as unpredictable as sports can be, you at least need to come into a game with some kind of plan.
Gonzaga didn’t have one on Monday night, which always seems to be the case with Few’s teams in the NCAA Tournament. It’s the only way to explain how you enter a national championship game as the overwhelming undefeated favorite, and your night is over within the opening seconds.
Two minutes and 32 seconds into the game Baylor was up 9-0. They never looked back, and Gonzaga’s unblemished record was history before the first TV timeout.
The Bears’ largest first-half lead was 19. They led by 10 at the break. Baylor grew its lead to 20 in the second half and won by 16. Jalen Suggs’ overtime buzzer-beater from Saturday night was the last time Gonzaga had a lead.
Many will point to Saturday’s emotional win over UCLA as a reason why Gonzaga may have come out flat and lifeless. I call B.S. on that. A coach’s job is to prepare his team. And if you’re going to celebrate Saturday’s win then you better show up and play on Monday. And as you saw, Few didn’t have his team prepared as it got outhustled, outplayed, and bullied all night. Baylor showed up at the Final Four ready to win two games, while the Zags were just happy winning one. And when that happens, it falls on the coach’s lap.
Since Few took over in Spokane in 1999, the Bulldogs haven’t missed an NCAA Tournament and have made two Finals Fours since 2017. From 2004-2006, Few’s teams were either a No. 2 or a No. 3 seed, but the Sweet Sixteen is as far as they made it. In 2013 they were a No. 1 seed and lost in the second round. In 2015, they were a No. 2 seed and were heavily favored in their Elite Eight matchup with No. 1 Duke. They lost. After that season they were seeded 11th, 1st, 4th, 1st, and were the overall No. 1 seed this year. Expectations grew over the years as the names on the jerseys changed, but the results continued to be the same. Like clockwork, Gonzaga’s seasons always end in tears.
According to NCAA.com, Gonzaga was America’s top choice to win the tournament, as 38.82 percent of the entries in their Bracket Challenge Game had the Bulldogs winning it all. That’s probably because those people drank the Kool-Aid that many in the college basketball media landscape served them. Before the tournament started, 27 of ESPN’s 36 college basketball commentators, analysts, and writers all chose Gonzaga. And on Monday, all three of FOX College Hoops’ analysts had chosen the Bulldogs to beat Baylor. Sports Illustrated didn’t fare much better, as six of their eight pundits picked Gonzaga, too.
This isn’t about underestimating how good Scott Drew’s Baylor team was, it’s about overhyping a team that was led by a coach that has proven that he always loses the game he needs to win the most. Crowning Gonzaga as the champs after Suggs’ shot banked in at the buzzer was a slap in the face to the Bears, and Few didn’t have his team prepared to take a punch.
Ironically, this was the season in which Gonzaga was supposed to prove itself. With a freshman phenom in Suggs, the Bulldogs finally had a player that could push them over the top. And after years of being untested in the puny West Coast Conference, Few loaded up his schedule with non-conference foes like Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia, Baylor (which was canceled due to COVID), Iowa, and Virginia. The Zags managed to survive all of that and multiple pauses due to the coronavirus with an undefeated record.
The table was set for the Gonzaga. It was like a screenplay. Few was enjoying his best season at the school, with his best team, during a year in which the likes of Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan State, and Kansas wouldn’t pose a threat due to them all having down years.
But then, Mark Few did what he always does, and choked.
Monday night wasn’t a surprise, it was expected. Don’t say I never tried to warn you. Check the date.