High-Scoring Gonzaga Brings a Fresh Style to Chase for Historic Undefeated Year

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2021

Drew Timme
Drew TimmeYoung Kwak/Associated Press

As nonconference play ended in December and Gonzaga held an undefeated record, the chase for history was on. And after an 88-78 comeback win in the West Coast Conference tournament final against BYU on Thursday, the Bulldogs have completed Step 1.

Now comes the hard part.

Gonzaga, at 26-0, is only the 20th team in men's college basketball history to enter the NCAA tournament with zero losses. That alone is a significant accomplishment. But of the previous 19, only seven celebrated a national title.

The last undefeated team to win the NCAA tournament is 1975-76 Indiana, which navigated a 32-team field. Since then, however, none of the four undefeated teams cut down the nets. Most recently, Wichita State (2013-14) and Kentucky (2014-15) lost in the second round and Final Four, respectively.

In most cases, history can guide expectations. That's not possible here for a couple of key reasons.

Because of such a small sample size, it's dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions. And since 17 of the 19 undefeated years happened at least 30 years ago, most are irrelevant.

Stylistically, the Zags are similar to 1990-91 UNLV, the fast-paced, high-scoring juggernaut from the Big West. But, again, 30 years have passed. While comparing them is fun in theory, their opponents play much differently.

So the last two occurrences are the best reference points. The interesting part is Gonzaga has an opposing profile.

Jalen Suggs
Jalen SuggsYoung Kwak/Associated Press

Wichita State and Kentucky had great offenses that ranked 17th and sixth, respectively, in adjusted efficiency on KenPom.com. But they finished 11th and first on the defensive side, also playing at far slower tempos than Gonzaga. Wichita State checked in 243rd, and Kentucky ended the season 274th.

Most notably, Wichita State and Kentucky locked down the perimeter. Opponents hit threes at the 29th- and third-lowest rates, respectively, while Gonzaga is 110th.

On the other hand, the Zags boast the nation's top offense and fourth-fastest tempo while ranking 12th on defense. Behind top scorers Corey Kispert, Drew Timme and Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga leads the country with a 63.3 true shooting percentage; Wichita State and Kentucky finished 41st and 57th.

Elite offenses are not unique, of course, but Gonzaga is the first one in 30 years to threaten for an undefeated record. Basically, if you're a millennial or younger, this style of team has essentially never entered the NCAA tournament with these stakes during your basketball fanhood.

Understandably, some viewers only care about one simple question: Can the Zags finish the job?

David Becker/Associated Press

Beyond the statistical measures, competition level is a good starting point. Although the NET ranking is today's standard, the RPI rating is the measure of the past and still available.

Heading into March Madness, Wichita State had defeated three Top 50 teams and eight from Nos. 51 to 100. Kentucky had beaten 11 and 11. Despite a shortened season, Gonzaga has tallied nine and five. Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia are all projected top-four seeds, per Bracket Matrix.

Wichita State, ironically, fell to Kentucky in the 2014 tournament. That team underperformed expectations, and five key players joined star freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker on Kentucky's 2015 undefeated team. Even with Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early, you can forgive Wichita State for a two-point loss to UK's talent.

The following year, Kentucky rode its defense to the Final Four. However, the Wildcats lost to a top-seeded Wisconsin team, long considered the perfectly bad matchup, in the national semifinals.

On paper, Gonzaga's outlook is a mix of those situations.

While a few matchups may be challenging (Loyola-Chicago, for example), there is no 2014 Kentucky-like roster that can out-talent Gonzaga in early rounds. Conversely, the Zags can find their 2015 Wisconsin in Baylor, Michigan or even Illinois, depending on who you ask.

Yes, the randomness of a single-elimination tournament has bitten more undefeated teams than not. That part is basic, understandable math. Nevertheless, this is an incredible offensive team with a strong list of regular-season wins.

No matter what happens in March Madness, Gonzaga has sealed its place in history. Step 2, however, offers a unique feel compared to the latest pursuits of a perfect season.


Statistics courtesy of KenPom.com or Sports Reference, unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.