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For Zags, 32 is the magic number

by STEVE CAMERON / Zags Tracker
| March 16, 2021 1:00 AM

I’ve got to be honest.

Never saw this coming, this outpouring of respect that has hit like a blizzard from all points of the compass.

You could almost call it awe.

Even if plenty of big-time pundits still can’t pronounce the name correctly – no, it’s not “Gon-ZOG-a” – and hardly anyone east of Montana knows exactly where the school is located, the real stunner was this …

Pretty much everyone is on the Zags basketball bandwagon.

Yes, I expected Gonzaga to grab the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

That sparkling 26-0 record was bound to earn the top spot, but truthfully, I thought we’d hear plenty of naysayers mentioning the “weak WCC” – and that plenty of the top hoops experts would predict the Zags getting dumped in an upset.

Anywhere from the second round to the Elite Eight, right?

An unbeaten team from a conference with little national clout?

Perfect recipe for heartbreak.

WOW, I was wrong.

Really wrong.

Instead of dissing the Zags, almost everyone has picked them to make history, running it out to 32-0 and becoming the first team to win the title without a loss since the NCAA expanded the tournament beyond 32 teams.

By the way, that number 32 almost seems to have an eerie feel to it.

Indiana was 32-0 in 1976, the last time anyone won the tournament to wrap up an unbeaten season.

So why not Gonzaga?

Another 32?

As we roll along here, plenty of oddities (and potential milestones) will keep turning up.

Let’s start with the extremely strange West Region, which you’d almost guess the selection committee put together while having a few beers.

OK, maybe no alcohol, but at least these folks must have had a few giggles – you know, anticipating the reaction out here in the real world.

Here’s a thumbnail view of the wild, weird West from Yahoo Sports…

“Gonzaga absolutely earned a kind draw. But not every top seed who earns one gets one.

“And Gonzaga's is more than a kind draw; it's a dream draw.

“No. 2 seed whom they've already beaten by double digits.

“No. 3 and 4 seeds with COVID-19 issues (also teams which the Zags have already thumped).

“Nothing even remotely resembling a potential roadblock in the second round or Sweet 16.

“The Zags were already going to be a popular Final Four pick before Selection Sunday.

“Now they should be an overwhelmingly popular one.”

OK, WE’VE mentioned that plenty of praise has been heaped on the Zags – which is a bit of a shock.

I suppose there are still holdouts who think the Zags have been faking it, and see a huge upset coming.

But searching social media and major networks for actual experts, I couldn’t find anyone who doubts the Zags.

It isn’t light applause, either, as though the consensus is that the Zags will give a decent account of themselves.

Nope, these are flat-out prediction that Gonzaga will win it all.

The brackets were barely released before Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis at CBS both leaned in with Gonzaga defeating Illinois in the national title game.

The entire ESPN platoon of experts chimed in as well, with Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale (different deliveries, but plenty of savvy) added to the Zags’ admiration society.

Ditto Myron Medcalf.

Here’s a tiny slice of Medcalf’s view…

“This might be the best team Mark Few has ever coached.

“Yes, that's a strong statement about a program that had first-round picks Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke on the same team in 2018-19, two seasons after losing to North Carolina in the national title game in 2017.

“But the Bulldogs have never had a group with this volume of talent, depth and efficiency.”

ALL OF these voices I’ve mentioned are picking Gonzaga to win its first national championship.

No one is wishy-washy about it, either – despite giving kudos to contenders like Baylor, Illinois and Michigan.

Everyone feels so certain.

Why does that seem odd, at least to me?

Well, I’ve actually gotten more and more nervous about this unbeaten thing as the season has gone on – in part because the players are bound to be thinking about it.

Mark Few made it plain after the WCC tournament that everybody – coaches, players, staff – had chosen to embrace this shot at history.

“What we’ve been through this year, and to have this incredible run – heck, to be undefeated on March 14 is crazy -- especially with the preseason we played, and even just getting through our league season,” Few said during an ESPN interview.

“We’ve carried the No. 1 target on our shoulder all year. I think that’s an incredible accomplishment.

“That being said, heck yeah, we want to win a national championship.”

MY WORRY about how the Zags will play now has to do with just what Few has mentioned.

It has, most certainly, been a rough year – filled with uncertainly, plus days and weeks basically imprisoned in dorms or apartments.

I think that exact toughness that Few admires was becoming stretched pretty thin toward the end of the regular season.

The Zags looked, well, tired in those final two home games against Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount – nor did they look sharp in the WCC tournament against Saint Mary’s.

The near-catastrophe against BYU speaks for itself.

Remember, Few has used his bench less and less as the season has wound down.

It appears he’d rather use just seven players – the starters plus Anton Watson and Aaron Cook – and the result is that the Zags haven’t been as crisp or quick as the guys we watched most of the year.

SOME OF these national journalists mention depth as one of the Zags’ strengths but, in reality, bench contributors like Julian Strawther and Dominick Harris have seen less and less playing time.

Some good news: This 11-day break between winning the WCC event and starting the NCAA tournament on Saturday night may really help the Zags.

The iron five – Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi, Drew Timme, Andrew Nembhard, and yes, 19-year-old Jalen Suggs – have clocked a lot of mileage on their way to those 26 victories.

I mentioned Suggs last in that group for a reason.

While the other six regular rotation players are terrific in their roles, young Jalen is critical for an obvious reason…

He’s the only one of the Zags who can truly grab a game by the scruff of the neck.

He can take things over.

We saw it against Kansas to start the season, and then in the BYU thriller that hopefully launched Gonzaga into March Madness.

Maybe I’m imagining little issues that aren’t really problems.

Maybe the thought of a magic, legendary 32-0 season has me fretting over puffs of air.

So…

Maybe all these national voices have it right.

Let’s hope so, yes?

Email: scameron@cdapress.com

Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.

Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball which will be published on Thursdays during the NCAA tournament.