NCAA Tournament: Is this finally the year Gonzaga wins it all?
This could be the breakthrough season that Gonzaga has been building toward for the last half decade.
After reaching the 2017 NCAA men’s basketball championship game and falling to North Carolina, the Zags have been on another steady ascent. In the next three NCAA Tournaments that were held, the Bulldogs went to a Sweet 16, an Elite Eight and — last season — back to the national title game, where it lost to Baylor.
Gonzaga (26-3) is the overall No. 1 seed in this season’s NCAA Tournament after the 68-team bracket was revealed on Sunday night. Is this the year the school wins its first national championship?
Gonzaga was the preseason No. 1 and has clearly done nothing to shake that impression. What might put them over the top? While it returned several key players, including star forward Drew Timme, the Zags added 7-footer Chet Holmgren, who was the West Coast Conference Freshman of the Year after averaging 14.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.6 blocked shots. He could be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA Draft.
"We’re excited for the challenge," Timme said in an ESPN interview. "We’re a much better defensive team than we were last year, for sure."
Two of the other three No. 1 seeds were not much of a surprise. Arizona leads the South Regional and Kansas leads the Midwest. Defending champion Baylor was shipped to the East. Baylor’s position on the top line seemed threatened when it lost early in the Big 12 Tournament, but when Auburn and Kentucky both failed to reach the SEC title game, the Bears got the nod.
There is always excitement surrounding the tourney and even more so this season as arenas will again be filled with fans as the country continues to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic that canceled the 2020 event and forced last year’s showcase to be played in essentially empty venues.
"This was a really special year because we all realized what we missed," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
"Getting everything back to normal with the national tournament is something that’s very important," selection committee chairman Tom Burnett said. "We can’t wait to get out on the road this week."
Villanova won the Big East Tournament on Saturday at the Garden and it earned the Wildcats the No. 2 seed in the South. Duke and retiring coach Mike Krzyzewski, who is seeking a sixth national crown in this 36th appearance in the tournament, were beaten in the ACC Tournament final that same night by Virginia Tech at Barclays Center. It is said that "Duke gets all the calls," and it looked like the Blue Devils did again Sunday as it held on for the last No. 2 seed, joining Gonzaga in the West. Duke doesn’t have an easy road, with a possible second-round game with Michigan State and potentially Texas Tech or Alabama in the Sweet 16.
Kentucky is the No. 2 seed with Baylor in the East and Auburn is the No. 2 seed in the Midwest. And certainly with the parity displayed during this season outside of Gonzaga and Arizona one could see any of the first eight seeds – as well as South No. 3 Tennessee – prevailing.
It was a good night for the power conferences. The Big Ten, despite its poor showing a year ago, had nine teams selected. That included Michigan as an 11 seed and Indiana, which will play Wyoming on Tuesday in Dayton for the No. 12 slot in the West. The Big East, Big 12 and SEC each got six teams in the draw and the ACC got five because upstart Virginia Tech won the ACC Tournament.
In addition to Villanova getting a No. 2 seed, the Big East has Providence as a 4, UConn as a 5, Seton Hall as an 8 and Marquette and Creighton as 9 seeds. Xavier came to championship week looking like it would be the seventh Big East entry but the weight of losing nine of its last 11 proved too heavy.
Joining Wyoming and Indiana among the last four selected for at-large bids are Notre Dame and Rutgers, who face off Wednesday in Dayton for the No. 11 spot in the West.
Dayton would have been in that last group of four had Richmond not won Sunday’s Atlantic 10 title game to steal a bid. Texas A&M made an impressive run to the SEC final, but also was on the outside looking in.
While mid-majors were awarded just seven of the 36 at-large bids, a couple conferences had notable performances. The Mountain West got four teams in for the first time since 2013 and the West Coast Conference got three for the first time since 2012, as San Francisco is a 10 seed. The Dons, famous for winning national titles in 1955 and 1956 with Bill Russell, haven’t been to the Big Dance since 1998.
Top four seeds in the four regions:
3. Texas Tech