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Zags come so close, still our heroes

4/4/2017 (Permalink)

ESPN.com: Men's College Basketball[Print without images]
Monday, April 3, 2017
Updated: April 4, 3:43 AM ET
Gonzaga has to live with coming so close
By Eamonn Brennan

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- One day before he won the third national title of his career, Roy Williams was talking about the third title that wasn't -- trying to explain what it's like to be on the other end of a loss like the one North Carolina took against Villanova when Kris Jenkins' buzzer-beater sailed through the net almost exactly one year ago.

"In the locker room was the most -- it was the most difficult time I've ever had as a coach," Williams said. "Because I felt so inadequate. What was I going to say to my guys?"

Williams didn't have this problem Monday night. Mark Few did. Few's task was almost equally impossible: The 37-2 Zags had just lost their last game of the season a possession or two from the goal they were sure, right up to the final few moments of Monday's 71-65 loss, they would achieve.

What do you say to Przemek Karnowski, the winningest player in college basketball history, about the 1-of-8 he shot in his final game? How do you console Nigel Williams-Goss, who sprained his ankle and refused to leave the floor for the second time in two games, who burst into devastated tears the moment a win was out of reach?

How do you buck up a team that just played its worst offensive game of an otherwise brilliant season when a few more buckets would have made all the difference? How do you assuage a group of 18- to 24-year-old kids -- a group that carried Gonzaga basketball further than it had ever gone, a group that had so reveled in proving that everything everyone had said about the Zags and the NCAA tournament was silly and wrong -- worried they let you and thousands of others down?

Seriously: What do you even say?

"To be so close for us is a temporarily crushing blow right now," Few said. "But I'm hoping and knowing perspective will come with time."

   Przemek Karnowski walks off the court as North Carolina players start to celebrate.

"He even used that word too," Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins said, whispering and red-eyed at his locker. "Not right now. I don't even know what that means."

Whether Perkins and his teammates wanted to acknowledge it, there was good news embedded in their anguish Monday night: It is impossible to be this disappointed if you didn't fully expect to win.

Twenty years ago, when Gonzaga first streaked into the NCAA tournament as a lovable unknown insurgent, this dynamic would have been unthinkable. Those Zags were flying by the seat of their pants, enjoying the ride, undoing one tournament favorite after another, free of expectations. This weekend, Few described those early years as "foot loose and fancy free," because no one at Gonzaga, from the administration to the players, knew any better.

Then, almost miraculously, Gonzaga refused to recede into the college basketball wilderness. Instead, Few and his program grew and grew and grew -- first to a perennial tournament team, then to one with a player of the year-level star like Adam Morrison, then to a powerhouse with frequent, and legitimate, national-title aspirations.

Along the way, this former startup from the 5,000-enrollment Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington, somehow morphed into a lightning rod -- a modern blue blood from a mid-major conference, a locus for ridiculous annual takes about strength of schedule and NCAA tournament seeding and NCAA tournament "disappointments," as if Gonzaga hadn't proven how crazy the NCAA tournament is in the first place. Somehow, Few became the poster child for concern-trolling about having never been to the Final Four.

The 2016-17 Gonzaga Bulldogs exploded all of that nonsense into myth. If nothing else, the intelligent college basketball fan should thank them for that.

"They absolutely ignited a lot of stale people that were kind of bored with the Zags and saying that we haven't been capable of achieving something like this," Few said.

 Bulldogs guard Jordan Mathews offered his take. 

"How many teams would take 37-2, league champs, national runner-up?" said Mathews, whose Cal team lost in the first round last spring before his graduate transfer to Gonzaga. "We broke that glass ceiling that everybody said we couldn't get over. Everybody was saying the Zags couldn't get to the Final Four. We did that."

Even better, Gonzaga didn't just get to the Final Four -- the way that, say, the 1999 Bulldogs got to the Elite Eight. They didn't ride in on some wacky series of upsets; they weren't some mind-blowing March story that just happened to stick around for an extra weekend.

They were the best team in the country pretty much all season. They lost two games. They finished first in ESPN's Basketball Power Index and first in KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency ratings. They starred several elite recruits. They brought a potential first-round draft pick, Zach Collins, off the bench. Despite an incredible blue-blood opponent led by coaching legend, a tough, late non-call out of bounds on a Kennedy Meeks rebound/jump ball and Williams-Goss' horribly timed sprained ankle, they finished (basically) a possession short of the national title.

And there's no reason to expect Gonzaga won't be back in this exact same position, sooner rather than later.

"Talking to [Syracuse coach Jim] Boeheim earlier in the week, he told me it will crush you if you don't win it," Few said. "And I guess I didn't understand it. But the cagey old veteran is right. Man, it crushes you."

Few described that conversation shortly after he described the 10 minutes he had spent trying to console Williams-Goss. The guard couldn't "process losing," Few said, "because it doesn't happen very often to him."

Therein lies the upside of Gonzaga's hurt, the thing Few tried to get across even when there was nothing he could really say.

Gonzaga wasn't happy with a mere place on the stage, nor should they have been, which is exactly why they were so inconsolable Monday night.

The Bulldogs were great, and so their pain was too.

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