By Jordan Morey | @JordanAMorey
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – For the Gonzaga Bulldogs, records are irrelevant at this point in the season — even the one that could create a place as one of the greatest teams in the history of the game.
Once the 2021 NCAA tournament bracket was released, the Bulldogs stopped looking at the figures in their win-loss ledger, especially the zero that has been there all season. Going undefeated in the regular season was a nice accomplishment, but staying unbeaten during March Madness has been the Zags’ No. 1 priority since July.
The top-seeded Zags (29-0) moved one step closer to their championship dreams on Sunday as the program advanced to its fifth Elite Eight since 2015, and sixth overall, by topping No. 5 Creighton 83-65 at Hinkle Fieldhouse in the West Regional semifinals. The Bulldogs never trailed against the Bluejays (22-9), and the two teams were only tied for 28 seconds in the game total.
Gonzaga, a school that never played in the tournament until 1995, is positioned to create one of the event’s greatest achievements.
But that’s not how the Zags look at it.
“We’re not hung up on the undefeated thing at all,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We’ve got to go undefeated from here on out. We’ve got to go 3-0 if we want to win the championship. That’s been our goal all along. But nobody’s talking about the overall undefeated thing at all.”
Gonzaga will now face the winner of Oregon-USC on Tuesday for a shot at making the Final Four for just the second time. The last time the Bulldogs were among the last four teams in the draw, in 2017, they lost to North Carolina, 71-65, in the national championship game.
Elite hardly describes the company that Gonzaga’s 2020-21 team keeps. The Bulldogs can become the first undefeated champion since Indiana University accomplished the feat during the 1975-76 season. Since the Hoosiers’ title, just four teams have entered the tournament undefeated: Indiana State in 1979, UNLV in 1991, Wichita State in 2014 and Kentucky in 2015. Wichita State was the only team in the group that did not reach the Final Four, but Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores became the only team to reach the national championship game.
The 1976 Hoosiers were one of seven teams to complete a perfect season with a championship: San Francisco in 1956, North Carolina in 1957, and UCLA in 1964, 1967, 1972 and 1973.
But ask the players on Gonzaga’s current roster, and they’ll tell you they could care less about any of those facts.
“I think we always talk about just being us,” Bulldogs junior Andrew Nembhard said. “….What we do with each other and how we make each other better, that’s what we’re more satisfied with every day. So I don’t think we see too much pressure in it.
“Also, at this point, every team has to go undefeated now to win the tournament. So there’s not really pressure to keep that streak. It just is what it is.”
The Bulldogs have met little resistance to this point in the postseason, but that’s nothing new to this year’s group. It’s been that way all along, as the team has the highest scoring margin — an average of 23 points — in the country. The same can be said for the tournament, as the Bulldogs trounced Norfolk State 98-55 in the first round and Oklahoma 87-71 in the second before shooting down the Bluejays.
When UNLV took the court in the old RCA Dome in 1991, the undefeated record became a dominant theme. When Kentucky arrived in Lucas Oil Stadium in 2015, there was a similar feeling. This spring, 45 years after the last perfect season, the statistic feels closer to an afterthought.
If there’s any lack of hype towards the possibility that the Zags could finish their season unblemished, it could be attributed to the lack of concern from the program’s leader. The pressure isn’t the possibility of finishing undefeated, but that their season could come to an end any time Gonzaga steps on the floor.
“…I think pressure’s on all these teams as you get farther and farther along with this, and the pressure comes from a lot of places,” Few said. “I think the biggest place it comes from is you don’t want it to end. Our team just absolutely — I mean, I bet, if you asked them, they wish they could play 25 more games together. So you just don’t want it to end.”
Sunday’s victory means that Gonzaga’s season has been reduced to a maximum of three more games together. Numbers can tell a lot about the team, but the only one the Bulldogs say they care about is the final score at Lucas Oil Stadium on the night of Monday, April 5.