Friday, December 1, 2023

Another Gonzaga season ends without a title and the Bulldogs’ window to win an NCAA Tournament may have closed

SAN FRANCISCO — The irony is how slow Arkansas made Gonzaga look. How unproductive. How standard.

The Gonzaga program that had won 28 out of its 31 games this season — and 90 out of previous 96 games before Thursday night — was not a team that labored to keep the pace or floundered with accruing points on points on points. It scored with style, it poured in buckets like an avalanche and embraced a high-speed game that made it among the best teams in the sport. 

Maybe the best team. The predictive metrics said as much. Gonzaga was the No. 1 team at, at, in the NET and BPI. 

But something was amiss with this team ever since the Big Dance began. For the third consecutive game, the top-seeded Bulldogs came slow out of the gate in this tournament. That didn’t matter against Georgia State in the first round; Gonzaga won by 21. It created high drama that faded in the closing minutes vs. Memphis in round two, when GU won by four. On Thursday night, the Zags again got off to a creaky start and proved incapable of rolling in the dirt with the Hogs. 

No. 4 Arkansas upset the No. 1 overall seed 74-68, ending Gonzaga’s season and ruining another chance at winning a national title. The prospect of college basketball’s greatest rags-to-riches story will have to wait at least another year, if ever it will materialize.

“We never really got any sort of rhythm in the first or the second half,” Bulldogs coach Mark Few said. “To me that was the difference in the game, and I felt like we had stretches where we guarded them pretty good. We just couldn’t get any rhythm on our offensive end, which is rare for us.”

The Bulldogs have statistically rated as the best team in college basketball over the past two seasons, but they have one Final Four and no championship to show for it. In 2022, they leave this big bracket with a 2-1 record. By any measure, it’s a disappointment. Gonzaga has long since graduated from accepting Sweet 16 appearances. This is a program that strives for deep tournament runs in hopes of one day finally being able to raise a national championship banner. 

Will the school ever have a better chance than the past two seasons? If not now, when?

Few recruited the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2021, Chet Holmgren, for games just like this. Holmgren’s presence wound up not mattering all that much Thursday night. His auto-benching at the hands of Few after the uniquely talented freshman picked up his second foul with eight minutes remaining in the first half proved detrimental. Gonzaga was up 22-17 at that point, Holmgren scoreless then. The Zags never regained control of the game. The team shot just 35% in the first 20 minutes. It would end at 38%.

“Getting Chet in foul trouble, that was one of the big things for us,” Hogs center Jaylin Williams said. “We wanted to keep driving at him. We wanted (Razorbacks senior) JD (Notate) to play aggressive. We wanted our guards to keep driving at him. Getting him in foul trouble was a really big plan for us in that game.”

“We needed Chet to be able to stay in there a little longer,” Few said. “We’re so different on defense when he is in there with his rim protection.”

The last time Gonzaga fell this early in the NCAAs was 2018. It was a No. 4 seed then, not a No. 1. You can make the argument that no program plays under more consistent pressure to perform at the highest level, while simultaneously being a target of narrow-minded skeptics, than Gonzaga. Much of that cynicism is unearned and lazy. Still … some of it feels acceptable on a night like this. Eric Musselman, who was a WCC player at San Diego once upon a time, knew Gonzaga had ways to be exploited. He knew the WCC cloth from which this team is cut did provide an opportunity. Arkansas’ coach sensed Gonzaga’s muscle memory for SEC-style physicality might be a tad sluggish.

“We wanted them to feel bodies,” Musselman said. “I played in that league. I know what some of the teams are like in that league, and the physicality and the speed that we can play with is just different, and, obviously, they played a really tough schedule early in the season, but it’s been a long time in conference play since they faced a team like us.”

Gonzaga managed just 0.88 points per possession (on 19-of-43 2-point shooting and 5-of-21 3-point shooting) against Arkansas’ defense, amounting to one of its worst shooting showings in years. Holmgren’s foul issues never subsided. Call it an inconsistent whistle, call it whatever you’d like. Gonzaga got its butt beat by the Hogs, and the right team won. For a second consecutive season, the physicality of a power-conference opponent proved to be too much for the Zags in this tournament. What this team could have given to find that out again on a Final Four stage as opposed to the second Thursday of the tournament.  

“This is what we dreamed about. This is what we came here to do,” Notae said. “Coach said before we left Fayetteville, if we didn’t want to win, then don’t get on the plane. I feel like we brought that the whole time we’re here.”

Arkansas had the scrap, had the knack, had the plays when it needed them time and time again in the second half. And Notae? Guilt-free basketball. He took 29 shots, among the most ever in an NCAA Tournament game for a winning player.

Holmgren’s career is over (he will likely go in the top three of the NBA Draft) with an 11-point, 14-rebound performance that lasted just 23 minutes on the court. No one knows if Drew Timme’s just played his final game in a college uniform or if he’ll return for a senior season. If this was it, he’ll have to settle for good instead of great: 25 points on 9-of-19 shooting, seven rebounds, five turnovers. 

The rest of the team faltered around Timme. Andrew Nembhard had one of his worst games, finishing with seven points on 2-of-11 shooting and five turnovers. Credit that reality to Arkansas’ Au’Diese Toney, who had one of the best defensive games of his career. Julian Strawther shot 33% (3 for 9) and never found his confidence in this tournament. Rasir Bolton was on the floor for 29 minutes but shot 3-of-10 from the field and finished with four fouls. Few knew he had to get Holmgren back in as the game grew more in doubt as the second half wore on. With 6:40 to go, the lanky fella came back in. It was 56-50. Then Notae promptly hit an audacious 3-pointer to make it a nine-point Arkansas lead, its largest of the night. 

“I thought it’s one of the fastest-paced teams that I’ve ever seen with the push of the ball, but even this morning we were still working on our transition defense,” Musselman said. “We wanted to take away their long outlet passes. That was something that we picked up on film when Nembhard would get a head of steam, and Au’Diese met him really, really early away in the back court, and I thought that really helped, and they did a great job of their pitch-ahead sideline and break. We took that away.”

Every time Gonzaga thought it might have a chance and elbowed its way back into the game, Arkansas found a way to nudge it further out of the discussion. Musselman’s a hell of a coach. He’s restored a type of pride to Arkansas that was missing for a generation. The SEC’s only remaining team in the field is a win away from its first Final Four in 27 years. This makes back-to-back Elite Eights for Arkansas. The Razorbacks lost to eventual champion Baylor a year ago. This time, it beat the team favored to win the whole thing. 

Mark Few could be looking at one of his more significant offseasons of roster turnover in a while. Gonzaga has reloaded with regularity, and it will be quite good again next season. But after making an undefeated run to the national championship game a year ago, then earning the No. 1 overall seed for a second straight year in 2022, it’s fair to wonder if this is Gonzaga’s peak. Longtime assistant Tommy Lloyd is at Arizona. Special circumstances led Gonzaga to landing lottery talents Jalen Suggs and Holmgren. Who’s next? 

If this Bulldogs story is ever going to have a storybook ending on a Monday night in April, it might well have to do it the way we long believed it would have to happen: not as the sport’s Goliath, but as the team that thrives off its doubters. As the program capable of getting to the top when it’s not expected to. 

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