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Gonzaga May Become First Undefeated Men's College Hoops Champion in 45 Years

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 22, 2020

Gonzaga's Drew Timme
Gonzaga's Drew TimmeDarron Cummings/Associated Press

I know what you're going to say: "Gonzaga has played only five games! Chill out!"

Have you watched this team play, though?

Gonzaga has already shown that it is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of the top threats to win the 2021 men's college basketball tournament.

But what else is new?

Gonzaga was a No. 1 seed in each of the 2013, 2017 and 2019 NCAA tournaments, and it might have been the No. 1 overall seed if there had been a tournament in March. The Zags entered this season with 257 victories dating back to the start of 2012-13. That's nearly 10 percent more than the next-closest teamVillanova at 235, with two national championships.

It has pretty much become an annual February tradition for me to write an "As you start thinking about your Final Four picks, make sure you don't forget about that really good team from Spokane, Washington, that has been decimating the poor West Coast Conference week after week" column.

However, this year's team looks better than ever. And that's really saying something for:

  • a program that started 29-0 before reaching the national championship just four years ago, and
  • a team that had to replace four of its six leading scorers during a global pandemic.
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The Bulldogs opened this season in Florida with convincing wins over Kansas and Auburn, averaging 96.0 points in those victories by double digits.

They proceeded to put up 87 points in a win over West Virginia in Indianapolisin spite of a scary-looking, lower-leg injury suffered by star guard Jalen Suggs in the first half. (He later returned to the game, but it sure looked like a torn Achilles when it happened.)

Then, after a 17-day gap between games that included an eight-day COVID-19 pause, the Zags went to South Dakota and scored at will in a 99-88 victory over Iowa.

Per KenPom, that's three neutral-site victories over Top 10 teams. (Auburn also ranks in the Top 75, for what it's worth.)

To put that incredible start in context, here's the full list of teams who won multiple games away from home against KenPom Top 10 teams in the entire 2019-20 season: Kansas (at Baylor, at West Virginia, vs. Dayton in Maui) and Duke (at Michigan State, vs. Kansas in New York City).

Again, that was the entire season.

It only took Gonzaga four games to win three such contests.

And this coming Saturday, the Zags will get the chance to add another impressive pelt to their wall when they battle Virginia (currently No. 18 on KenPom) in Fort Worth, Texas.

If they can shift gears well enough to win that game, too, what a remarkable statement that would be.

Gonzaga's Joel Ayayi (11) and Jalen Suggs
Gonzaga's Joel Ayayi (11) and Jalen SuggsDarron Cummings/Associated Press

Facing what is consistently one of the slowest-paced, defensive-minded teams in the nation just seven days after out-dueling one of the most uptempo, offensive-minded teams in the nation is quite the literal change of pace. The ability to excel in both games is about as challenging as winning the biathlon in the Winter Olympics: cross-country ski as fast as you can and then demonstrate the patience and precision to hit a small target with a rifle.

If anyone can pull it off, though, it's probably Gonzaga.

I maybe wouldn't have said that a week ago when the Bulldogs were just 16-of-55 (29.1 percent) from three-point range on the year, because since the start of the 2013-14 season, teams are 9-109 (7.6 winning percentage) when shooting 30.0 percent or worse from three against Virginia. But the 13-of-26 (50.0 percent) effort against the Hawkeyes was some serious regression to the mean for a team that shot at least 35.5 percent from distance in each of the last 23 seasons.

Sure, that hot shooting came against Iowa, which has been practicing social distancing on defense for the past half-decade. But it's not for nothing. The Zags moved the ball well, they shot it well and they did it all after more than two weeks between games.

Moreover, we expected this team to be better at three-point shooting than it displayed in those first three games.

Corey Kispert was a preseason first-team All-American in large part because of his sharpshooting over the previous three years. Joel Ayayi and Andrew Nembhard both displayed capable perimeter range over the past two years. And Suggs was the highest-rated recruit Gonzaga has ever signed and a guy with a great-looking shooting stroke. 

The pieces were there. It just took a few games to come together. Plus, it's not like they needed to worry much about the deep ball while averaging better than 31 made two-pointers at a 65.3 percent clip for those first three games.

But if that perimeter shooting is for real and they can sink 10 treys against the Cavaliers' pack-line defense, they should win that game, and then the "Undefeated Season Watch" will officially begin.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

It bears mentioning that when Gonzaga and Baylor had to postpone their game on Dec. 5, both sides seemed interested in rescheduling. At this point, though, the odds of that happening this season are unlikely. Before the Zags added this game against Virginia, this weekend looked like the only spot that could have worked in both teams' schedules.

Unless that game does get rescheduled, Gonzaga is going to be heavily favored in every remaining game.

Per KenPom, the Jan. 16 road game against Saint Mary'swhich Gonzaga has an 80 percent chance of winning with a projected score of 77-68is the only game beyond this weekend the Bulldogs aren't expected to win by at least 11 points.

By multiplying the remaining win probabilities together, there's currently a 24.3 percent chance they'll get to March with an undefeated record. That percentage improves to 33.7 if they defeat Virginia.

That still feels a little bit low given how dominant this team has been thus far, but the Bulldogs do usually let a game slip away against a WCC foe. It feels like they never lose in conference, but they have only run the table in league play once in the past seven years and just five times in the last 21 years under Mark Few. So who knows if they'll be able to keep a zero in the loss column until Selection Sunday?

But let me tell you right now: If Gonzaga does happen to become the first undefeated national champion since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers, I better not hear anyone try to put a "Well, it was 2020, so it doesn't really count" asterisk on it. These Zags put together an extremely aggressive nonconference schedule with a mission of repeatedly proving they are the best team in the country.

Thus far, Gonzaga has done just that.

                      

Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.

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