• February 1, 2023

Gonzaga May Miss March’s Madness

In normal times, even fans who don’t follow college basketball would feel nervous anticipation as the Gonzaga Bulldogs chase # 1 in history. Few teams in the recent past have been this dominant or so fun, and if this mid-major program can continue to win the NCAA tournament and finish with a national title, it should be mentioned among the greats of college hoops.

But of course these are not normal times.

The Eternal Tournament Treasure played the final game of an undefeated regular season on Saturday night in an arena where there were essentially no fans. The on-campus Bulldogs arena – affectionately known as the Kennel – had none of its usual energy, the growing craze the little Jesuit school in eastern Washington had in constantly challenging the blue blood of the game. Gonzaga’s kennel, which finally arrived as the top dog, had no bark.

The Zags were the rare team that held # 1 from the start of the regular season to the end of the season. The team enters the postseason at 24-0 and aims to be the first Division I men’s team since Indiana in 1976 to win a national title without defeat.

But when I saw the victory over Loyola Marymount play out, my mind seemed anxious to make up for the wall of noise that would normally come with such a game. Every sound, every scream from the referee, every rhythmic stroke of the ball felt amplified.

As Jalen Suggs ran down the court and plunged into it, the air rippled with nothing but various claps and shouts from the few dozen – mostly family members of the players.

This was Senior Night, the final home game for one of the nation’s best four-year-old players, the sharp-shooting little striker Corey Kispert. In normal times, Kispert would receive a suitably adoring goodbye. He went to the court through a crowd of students, gave an ovation, greeted his family in the square, and cut one of the nets.

None of this happened on Saturday. With limited capacity, the school decided to keep the evening decidedly understated. “There is nobody here,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few after the game. “Nobody here in the truest sense of the word. I don’t know who we’d do this for. “

This is the world we live in now. This month it has been a year since the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States and disrupted all aspects of daily life including sports. Our games and leagues have returned, but with few or no fans in the stands, they have often felt like fakes of reality.

Has any sport been as affected as college basketball, which has so much of its appeal for playing in intimate arenas in front of rabid fans? The college game hobbled through a jerky, painful season, despite more than 1,500 competitions being postponed or canceled due to the pandemic. In the midst of it all, you wouldn’t be alone if you didn’t pay close attention to it. Or if you missed what’s going on in Spokane, wash up.

“People pay attention to so many other things right now,” said Adam Morrison, one of Gonzaga’s most famous players and a first-round NBA draft pick who now works for the team as a radio analyst. “It just feels kind of melancholy,” he said of a season amid the pandemic.

Morrison’s exhilarating final season wowed the sports world and earned him the cover of a magazine in his junior year as an All-American sharing the Oscar Robertson Trophy for Player of the Year with Duke’s JJ Redick. Morrison’s 2005-06 Gonzaga team scored one of the Outsider’s best hits on a title before breaking out in an epic breakdown against powerhouse UCLA on Sweet 16

This year’s Zags do not have any of the markings of a long shot. Gonzaga’s undefeated campaign included wins against Iowa, Kansas, Virginia and West Virginia – ranked teams from ballyhooed conferences. The streak of 21 straight double-digit victories in No. 1 surpassed the UCLA Bruins mark of 1971-72 of John Wooden and Bill Walton, a squad that won 30-0 on the way to winning a national championship.

March should be a winning round for Gonzaga, but in a year that is only meant to bolster the NCAA’s bottom line financial results, the postseason will continue without the solemn spirit of the past. The men play their championship tournament in Indianapolis, the women in San Antonio. The participation of fans in both tournaments is limited.

If Gonzaga finally wins his first title at this point, would the team’s victory feel historic in a year of silently college basketball?

All of this makes me think of the Oregon Ducks women’s basketball team last year. The team with Sabrina Ionescu, the most famous name in college basketball, male or female, this season.

I spent a couple of weeks following the ducks for a feature on Ionescu, a time seemingly spent in a different universe when the coronavirus seemed like a distant problem that would soon be tamed. Ionescu had become a college sports rock star. She was not only known for her breathtaking game. The connection she had with Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna before they died added a tragic glow to her fame.

When Ionescu played her last regular season game on March 1, 2020, almost 13,000 fans bathed her and the ducks in second place in the Matthew Knight Arena in recognition. Flashing lights flashed, hip-hop music boomed, and eager fans were on their feet in ovation mode for a 36-point win over rival Washington.

The NCAA stopped spring sports 11 days later. Ionescu and the Ducks didn’t stand a chance at a national title, but Gonzaga will almost certainly have their chance, albeit in a completely different setting. Ionescu said there should be a moment to enjoy.

“If I could talk to the Gonzaga players I would tell them, ‘Don’t take it for granted,” she said when we spoke this week. “I know it’s not what everyone expects a year later have to be in this chaos. Not being able to play in front of normal audiences. But being able to play is better than not being able to compete. And besides, with all the trials and tribulations of this year, it could in the long run be more rewarding to win everything. “

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Jack

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