Glass Case of Emotion
The pressure on Gonzaga has reached absurd levels
Even if the Gonzaga Bulldogs were not an undefeated basketball team—and at 30-0, they very much are—the expectations on the 2021 team would be overwhelming. Let's count the ways:
1. They are a 1-seed. They are, in fact, the overall 1-seed.
2. All the traditional basketball powerhouses, like Duke and UNC and Kentucky, are bad and eliminated and/or not even invited.
3. They have made the Final Four and will play on Saturday against a very beatable opponent.
4. They have been a team on the brink for more than 20 years. Seriously. The first Gonzaga made the Elite Eight came in 1999. Mark Few came in the next year and they've been great ever since, making a ton of Sweet 16s, dominating the West Coast Conference, and finally making the Final Four in 2017, when they lost to UNC in the title game.
In short, this has been a team on the cusp of history for a very long time, and because they've always remained on that cusp, the perception of the program is "sure, they're good, but west coast good." As in, you know they're going to disappoint you come tourney time; at the end of the day, Adam Morrison or whoever is going to end up in tears.
In 2021, that does not appear to be true. They are never, ever going to have a better chance than this. That's just reality. And on top of all that, the Zags are undefeated. The last time an undefeated team won a national title came in 1976, when Indiana pulled it off, and it's virtually impossible now. Only six teams have finished the regular season undefeated since, and in recent memory, only the 2015 Kentucky team actually came close to winning the tournament. The pressure of making good on an undefeated season is immense, and it just adds to the already enormous weight on the Zags' shoulders.
If there's one thing working in their favor, it's that we're in a pandemic, and fewer people paid attention to the regular season. If you're reading this and you're not a Gonzaga fan, ask yourself: Can you name three of their players? That said, tournament ratings were high, particularly in the Sweet 16 when games were played on the weekend. All eyes are on them, and there's no escaping that cauldron when Saturday night rolls around.
You could also argue that the bracket is helping them. UCLA, an 11-seed, is a 14-point dog against the Zags. But does it really matter? Once you're into the postseason, you can catch fire, and UCLA's five-game run (they had to beat Michigan State in the play-in) culminated with a victory over 1-seed Michigan in the Elite Eight. They can compete with the best, and they've got nothing to lose. After that, the Zags will either have to deal with the smothering defense of Houston or a Baylor team that hasn't really had a close game yet.
The Zags are the favorites, but the road is rocky. When you consider the 20 years of near misses, the opportunity this strange year presents, and the added difficulty of capping off an undefeated season, the pressure they face isn't just high; it's historical. If they win anyway, it will be one of college basketball's most cathartic titles.