Empty Victories: The Gonzaga Story
No team has won more games in college basketball over the past 20 years than Mark Few and the Gonzaga Bulldogs. The team has compiled a 630-125 record since Few took over before the 1999-2000 season. That shining record translates to an 83.4% win percentage and makes Few the winningest coach in NCAAM history. Yet for all their wins and accolades, Gonzaga has never reached the top, the crown has always eluded them at the end of the year. Dominant season after dominant season leads to nothing, indeed Gonzaga's wins are nothing more than empty victories.
The Gonzaga basketball program got its start way back in 1907. At the time, the private Jesuit university in Spokane was largely unknown due to its small size (483 students) and lack of athletics (a football team was christened in 1892 with baseball following soon after). The foundation for future glory would be set in 1907 when the basketball program played its inaugural season, without a coach mind you. There would be little stability in the program though as over the next 72 years, the program ran through 25 head coaches (some more than once). The team would get their first taste of March Madness in 1995 under Dan Fitzgerald, a trial by fire if you will, as the Bulldogs got obliterated by Maryland in the first round 87-63 which marks their worst loss ever in the tournament.
After a four-year hiatus, the Bulldogs returned to the Big Dance in '99 under Dan Monson and proceeded to win three games as a ten seed. The cinderella run would end in the Elite Eight with a tight loss to the eventual champs, UConn. Little did the world know at the time, but that run in 1999 would kickstart the Gonzaga dynasty of success that continues to this day. Indeed, the team has made every NCAA Tournament since. The Bulldogs have made 21 straight tournaments, the third-longest streak in the nation.
Following the Zags tournament run, head coach Dan Monson abruptly left the program for Minnesota. In his stead, a young man by the name of Mark Few took up the reigns. Few had been a perennial assistant up to that point but had spent the last 10 years on Gonzaga's coaching staff so he knew the school and system well. Few and his Bulldogs picked up where they had left off, as the team would advance to two straight Sweet Sixteens, both times as a double-digit seed. Over the next 13 years, the Zags would fail to make any real noise in the tournament, making it to the Sweet Sixteen only twice, one less than their first three trips to the tournament. Even though the team earned a #1 seed, #2 seed, and a #3 seed twice, they often found themselves on the wrong side of an upset. Gonzaga had gotten over the first hump of routinely making the tournament, but consistent success during March had not yet been achieved. Still, it does wonders for a program to be in March Madness. The school was gaining notoriety, students, and money from the appearances. Few was proving himself to be recruiting master as he has managed to bring in five first-team all-americans to the program, when before they had none. Additionally, 23 of Few's players have made it to NBA through his tenure.
Gonzaga would finally break into contender status in 2015 when the team entered the tournament as a #2 seed and managed to get to the Elite Eight for the first time in Few's coaching career. Just like 1999, the Bulldogs would fall to the eventual champs in Duke. The following year saw the Zags return as an 11-seed, the team destroyed #6 Seton Hall and #3 Utah before losing to #10 Syracuse. In 2017, Gonzaga would earn their first #1 seed since 2013. The Bulldogs fought all the way to the title game before running out of steam in the final minutes against North Carolina. 2018 would see Gonzaga garner a #4 seed, but a Sweet Sixteen upset loss to Florida State snuffed out another run. In 2019, Zags earned another #1 seed, but could not avoid the upset bug once again against Texas Tech this time. Finally, in 2021 after becoming the 1st overall seed for the first time in program history, the Bulldogs would smash through opponents all the way to the Final Four. A tightly contested battle with UCLA ended in an OT victory for Few and many thought that Gonzaga had just made it over the hump. The championship battle with Baylor turned out to be a letdown as the Zags were thoroughly outplayed and denied glory once more. With a chance to finish the perfect season, the Bulldogs pissed it away and came out flat. One of the most dominant teams in college basketball history went home with no trophy, one of the greats to never win, destined to fade into history as nothing more than a team that came up short.
Gonzaga's dominance over the past few years has failed to translate into what a team desires most, a national title. This program has had four-straight years of 30-plus win campaigns, three #1 seeds over four years, multiple NBA lottery picks, and five-straight Sweet Sixteen apperances. While the Bulldog's competition in the WCC is not all that fierce, their achievements are still uberly impressive all the same. Few has won 20 WCC regular titles and 14 WCC tournaments. No other mid-major has morphed itself from an obscure program to perenial title contenders like Gonzaga has. While Few will be regarded as one of the greatest coaches of all time, he still needs a title to cement his status.
This could be Gonzaga's year though. The team is nearly as loaded as it was last year and there seems to be a lack of truly championship worthy competition behind them. Potential #1 pick Chet Holmgren and heart of the team Drew Timme make up what could possibly be the best big man duo in the nation. If Gonzaga is ever gonna win a title, this is the year to do it. It is time to reward Few and his many years of excellence with the title that he so deserves. Come March, when the Zags will likely have secured their thrid-straight #1 seed, there will be little that can stop Few and his Bulldogs from achieving their destiny.