Gonzaga fades as Indiana's '76 legacy stays intact
The ’76 Indiana Hoosiers can breathe a little easier for another year.
Their perfect season, the last in which a team stayed undefeated on its way to an NCAA Tournament Championship, remains one that is hard to match.
Might it be impossible to do so?
Probably not. A team will come along — and maybe it’ll be easier now in an era of open transfers, where a program could build a one-year super team — that will not only challenge again, but will also add the final W.
But that team wasn’t Gonzaga in 2021. It’s almost shocking to say that, considering what the Zags had done during the regular season. Of their 31 wins, only two came via single digits, a 5-point win over West Virginia during the regular season, then the overtime thriller against UCLA in the national semifinals. And after they survived the Bruins on freshman phenom Jalen Suggs’ 35-foot jumper at the buzzer, it seemed almost destiny that Gonzaga would win one more.
The Zags didn’t run into fatigue on Monday night in Indianapolis; they ran into a Baylor team that could very well have been in the same position, as an undefeated team looking for an undefeated title, had a midseason COVID pause not temporality messed with their mojo. We didn’t overvalue Gonzaga as much as we undervalued Baylor. Heck, a bunch of us (but not me) had Purdue beating the Bears in Round 3. (For the record, the rest of my bracket was a total dumpster fire). The matchup never materialized, because the Boilermakers were bounced by North Texas. No matter, Baylor would have skewered the Boilermakers, just like they did so many others this season, using their quickness and athleticism on the perimeter to overwhelm the opponent.
It’s crazy what they kind of defensive intensity can do to a usually superior offensive team. Gonzaga can pass the ball like few others, as it showed during the fantastic victory over the Bruins on Saturday. The ball barely hit the ground, zipping from one location to the next on the court, finding a wide-open player for high-percent shots.
The Zags didn’t forget to pass two days later. But those passing windows that were open Saturday, and previously this season, were closing in a hurry vs. the quick-handed Bears. Monday’s game felt like a clinic in ball disruption, tipping a pass here or deflecting an entry there. Or being quicker to a rebound. Over and over (and over and over).
Gonzaga joins others who have tried, and failed, before, like Indiana State and UNLV and Kentucky and others to finish the perfect season. Three of the four who made it to the Final Four with an unblemished record still intact lost in Indianapolis. Something about Hoosiers protecting their own, apparently.
Gonzaga will be a footnote, and maybe that’s all. All the credit to Mark Few and what he’s built in the Pacific Northwest, but perhaps there’s a limit to what a mid-major can do. It was the same for Butler and Wichita State, another one of those regular-season undefeateds, and Loyola Chicago and VCU and George Mason. The line between Final Four participant and national champion is a tough one to cross.
So the Hoosiers, the ones led by Quinn Buckner, Scott May and Kent Benson, stand up for another year. How long will it last? Hard to say, but they’ll savor their legacy as long as possible.