Since Mark Few took over as the head coach in 1999, Gonzaga Basketball has won the West Coast Conference (WCC) regular season all but twice and won the Conference Tournament 17 times. The tournament success however usually ends there for Few and the Bulldogs as they not only have never been able to win the NCAA Tournament, but they also struggle to advance far in March.
Gonzaga has entered the NCAA Tournament as a top 3-seed in seven of the 21 seasons under Few, including three times as a #1 seed in 2013, 2017, and 2019. Yet the team has only made the Final Four once, during the 2017 season. And they have fallen short of the Elite Eight in 17 of their 21 Tournament appearances.
Now it is easy to say that Gonzaga plays in a weak conference and this is the reason they do not have Tournament success because they are playing harder opponents come March, but I am not so sure that is the reason. To succeed in the NCAA Tournament, teams need to have star players that can carry a team, even a mature team, when the going gets tough. This is something Gonzaga has never truly had.
Consider the 2010-11 UConn Huskies. They entered the Big East Conference Tournament as a 9-seed and did not even get a bye. The Huskies then rattled off 11-straight wins to not only win the Big East Tournament, but also the NCAA Tournament. This team was a relatively good team but had nine regular-season losses. In the Tournament, when the lights were brightest though, Kemba Walker took over and he had help from Jeremy Lamb, both players who have had long NBA careers.
This season, that star player for Gonzaga is Jalen Suggs. Suggs is a 6’4″, 205-pound true freshman point guard who runs the show for the Bulldogs and is in consideration for the Wooden Award, the nation’s top college basketball player. In his one season in college he has elevated his name into the projected top 5 picks in the 2021 NBA Draft.
Gonzaga has produced NBA players in the past but never had a one-and-done star like Suggs. The closest comparison would be Zach Collins who went to the NBA after his freshman season, but Suggs is a better all-around prospect. Other Bulldogs in the NBA include Domantas Sabonis, Rui Hachimura, and Brandon Clarke. All are young and seeming has bright futures, but none have the raw talent and build of Suggs (who was also a highly recruited dual-threat quarterback in high school).
Furthermore, similar to Kemba at UConn, Suggs has great supporting teammates. The two starting forwards, sophomore Drew Timme and senior Corey Kispert, are both averaging 19+ points per game. Both Timme and Kispert have also been added to the late-season Wooden Award watch list themselves. The rest of the Gonzaga team is filled out by the usual suspects, smart and unselfish players that know their strengths and weaknesses.
This years’ Gonzaga Bulldogs led by Suggs, Timme and Kispert has star talent that the prior Gonzaga teams have not had. When games get tough and are close in crunch time, they can look to Suggs to carry them to a place they have never been: the throne at the end of the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga Bulldogs, 2021 NCAA Tournament Champions has a nice ring to it.