In this era when so much is wrong with so many things in the world, wouldn’t it be nice to see … perfection? Even if it’s just in the form of a basketball team?
When Gonzaga University meets UCLA Saturday evening in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs will have more than a national championship on the line — they also are two games away from becoming the first unbeaten team since Indiana pulled off the feat during the 1975-76 season.
The Bulldogs are 30-0. Going back to last season, they have won 34 straight games. The last time they lost was to BYU, 91-78 in Provo, Feb. 22, 2020.
Well, nobody’s perfect — except sometimes. Seven men’s college basketball teams have pulled it off, four of them by John Wooden’s UCLA teams.
Most of those teams were driven by superstars. Scott May and Kent Benson led the unbeaten Indiana team. Freshman Bill Walton carried UCLA’s unbeaten teams in 1972-73 and 1971-72, and along the way won 88 consecutive games over a 1,084-day stretch; Lew Alcindor (later renamed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) led the UCLA team that was unbeaten in 1966-67. Gail Goodrich and Walt Hazzard led the 1964 UCLA team that went unbeaten in 1963-64. Bill Russell led the San Francisco team that went unbeaten in 1955-56.
With the exception of San Francisco, all of those teams are among the bluebloods of the college game. Now along comes Gonzaga, a small (7,500 enrollment) private Catholic school that somehow has shouldered its way among the elite programs of college basketball.
Once the school was known on the sports pages only as the place that produced John Stockton, the NBA Hall of Fame point guard. Now he is a footnote to a program that has gone on to become the biggest little powerhouse in the nation.
The Bulldogs began to assert themselves in the late 1990s. After Minnesota hired away head coach Dan Monson, the Bulldogs promoted his assistant to replace him. Mark Few, the son of a Presbyterian pastor, has overseen a dramatic rise in the program’s fortunes. He has averaged 28 wins per year in the 22 years since then, and his winning percentage (83.4%) is tops among active coaches. The Bulldogs quickly became a fixture in the top 10 under Few and in 2012-13 were awarded their first No. 1 ranking (briefly). They have earned the No. 1 ranking many times during the seasons since then.
The Bulldogs have just one piece of unfinished business: that national championship. They played in the national championship game in 2017, but lost to North Carolina, 71-65. They appeared set to return to the Final Four last year — they were ranked No. 2 — but the NCAA Tournament was canceled.
If not for the cancellation, this season would have marked 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, which includes four Elite Eight showings in the last six years. They returned to the Final Four this season for the second time in four years (not counting the canceled year), having dispatched USC 85-66 in the Elite Eight.
The Bulldogs have been ranked No. 1 all season. They lead the nation in scoring (92 points per game) and became the first school ever to have three players chosen for the Wooden All-American team — Corey Kispert, Drew Timme and freshman Jalen Suggs. Kispert is a finalist for the Wooden Player of the Year award. Suggs is a superstar in the making. A year ago he was the first athlete ever to be named Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball in the same season in Minnesota.
In their pursuit of a national title, the Bulldogs carry the added burden of an unbeaten season. There have been others who were in Gonzaga’s position and didn’t pull it off.
• In 1979, Larry Bird and Indiana State took a 33-0 record into the national finals against Magic Johnson and Michigan State and lost 75-64.
• In 1991, UNLV took a 34-0 record into the national semifinals and lost 79-77 to Duke.
• In 2015, Kentucky took a 38-0 record into the national semifinals and lost to Wisconsin 71-64.
Others caved in sooner. In 2014, Wichita State was 35-0 when it lost to Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulldogs themselves were 29-0 late in the 2017 season when they lost to BYU, and then went on to the Final Four and the national finals and that loss to North Carolina.
Now they’re back to see if they can take the final step to the championship while also completing their rare feat of an unbeaten season.