Gonzaga faltered in NCAA championship, but its rise remains one of college basketball's amazing tales

INDIANAPOLIS -- Gonzaga was 40 minutes from cementing itself among college basketball's all-time great teams. The first undefeated team in 45 years, the first national championship in program history, just two games all season decided by single digits. Potentially a generational team.

It was all within reach at 9:20 ET on Monday night. By 9:30, it was out the window.

Under a barrage of Baylor 3-pointers and offensive rebounds in the first five minutes, everything was suddenly out of reach. The Bears were up by 10 at the first media timeout and led by double figures for all but 90 seconds the rest of the way en route to an 86-70 win in the final game of the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament.

"It's a really, really tough one to end a storybook season on," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "Obviously, we're all disappointed in here, but as I told the guys, you make it this far and you're 31-0 going into the last one, the last 40 minutes of the season, there's absolutely nothing you should ever feel bad [about]. And they'll look back on this season as time passes as something just amazing and incredible."

Gonzaga couldn't string together an extended run all night, struggling to contain Baylor's terrific backcourt of Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler and MaCio Teague at one end and committing untimely turnovers or missing open shots at the other.

Few tried everything. The Zags switched to a zone for a few possessions, and it worked. Then, Baylor coach Scott Drew sent Teague into the middle of the zone, Teague scored seven straight points and the experiment was over. An 8-2 run in the second half cut Baylor's lead to nine, but the Bears responded with a 15-4 run to close the door for good.

"We just ran into a team tonight that was, they were the aggressor, clearly," Few said. "So I think that put us back definitely on our heels on both ends. They're obviously more athletic than we are up around the rim. But I thought we might be able to find some advantages, too, and we just weren't quite able to do that. ... They were just on it."

So for the second time in five years, Gonzaga has fallen one step short of a national championship. In the previous title game, the Zags fell to one of the blue bloods of the sport in North Carolina. On Monday, the Bulldogs fell victim to a program on a similar trajectory to their own over the past two decades.

"It's obviously a feeling these guys had never had to address and deal with," Few said. "But I think the nature of it tonight probably made it -- I mean, it's not easy, but, again, as a coach you just try to give them as much perspective as you can. And as is usually the case with everything, time will lend them the best perspective."

Instead of being remembered as one of the best teams in the past half-century, Gonzaga will join the same conversation as 1991 UNLV and 2015 Kentucky. Absolutely dominant regular seasons, favored to cut down the nets, but not a national champion.

"You really do forget what it's like to lose," senior Corey Kispert said. "And every time it happens, it doesn't feel good. And thankfully, I've had not very many of them over my career, whether it's in the regular season or in the tournament. ... I'm going to remember this for a long time."

Less than 25 years ago, Gonzaga's administration nearly made a decision that would have made the Bulldogs' rise to a national powerhouse impossible. In the summer of 1998, the school was in the midst of a budget crisis, enrollment was stagnating and the powers-that-be were searching for any way to cut spending.

One option on the table: dropping the athletic programs from Division I to Division III. Just in scholarships and travel, the school would have saved more than one million dollars.

"I spent pretty much the whole summer battling to save us," Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth told ESPN last season. "But I also pointed out to some people that by becoming Division III, we have no chance of ever helping this university from a national or even regional perspective. So we survived at that time. ... But we got through it, and that was the summer of '98. And then March '99 rolls around and we won some games."

In Year 2 under Dan Monson, Gonzaga started its run from annual Cinderella to one of the best programs in college basketball. The Zags went to the Elite Eight as a 10-seed, before Monson left for Minnesota in late July -- just three months after signing a 10-year contract with Gonzaga.

Roth promoted Few to replace Monson, and Gonzaga rattled off two more second-weekend NCAA appearances as a double-digit seed.

"We go to the Sweet 16. Guess what? That next freshman class, our biggest ever," Roth said. "Next year, we go to the Sweet 16 again, guess what? Freshman class, biggest ever. Next year, biggest again."

It's called The Flutie Effect, stemming from Doug Flutie's Hail Mary pass and Boston College's win over Miami back in 1984. Gonzaga is now a brand-name school across the United States and perhaps besides an arena the size of the Carrier Dome or Rupp Arena, the Bulldogs have everything the biggest basketball programs in the country have. Twenty years ago, the program was fighting for money just to have a second full-time assistant coach on staff; now, the idea of Few leaving for North Carolina to replace Roy Williams was met with bemusement and immediately shot down in college basketball circles this past weekend.

"I always tell everybody at the end of the year, when I'm standing in a river all by myself somewhere in Montana or Idaho or Alaska, then you kind of start laughing by yourself to where we were in '89, '90 to where we are now," Few said Saturday after the Bulldogs' win over UCLA. "It's unbelievable. Atmospheres and events like this."

They've won at least 30 games in five straight seasons and advanced to at least the Sweet 16 in six straight NCAA tournaments. After Monday night, though, the Zags are still missing the one thing that will cement them among the elite of the sport: a national championship.

Without it, they will continue to hear the same shouts they hear every year. They don't play anyone after December. They wouldn't be the same in the Big Ten or the ACC. They fall short when it matters. While most of it is misguided and doesn't matter to Gonzaga anyway, it won't stop until they get to the top of the mountain.

But Gonzaga will be back, and the Zags are already being ranked No. 1 in early preseason top 25s making the rounds. They continue to take steps toward the elite of the elite every single season. Jalen Suggs was the highest-ranked recruit in program history, and he'll likely be Gonzaga's first top-five NBA draft pick since Adam Morrison 15 years ago. Gonzaga is also the favorite for No. 1-ranked recruit Chet Holmgren. That's the type of stuff only the cream of the crop of the sport can do consistently.

It might not be David turning into Goliath, but it's the closest thing we've seen in college basketball in a long time. Instead of sneaking up on teams as a plucky Cinderella just two decades ago, they're now the ones getting shocked by an underdog in the NCAA tournament.

In that sense, perhaps Monday night was as big a sign as any that the Zags are a college basketball powerhouse. They just need to take the final step.