The Gonzaga Bulldogs watched a 21-game winning streak end on Tuesday night in Las Vegas. The Saint Mary’s Gaels stunned the Zags, 60-47, in a result no one anticipated.
Bad night, right? In an immediate context, surely. Gonzaga-Saint Mary’s is a legitimate college basketball rivalry. The Zags and their fans want to drink “Gael Tears.” Anytime they lose to SMC is a disappointment. However, in terms of winning the NCAA Tournament, this could be the best thing to happen to Gonzaga.
One has to go back to the last time a team completed a perfect college basketball season.
The Indiana Hoosiers, under Bobby Knight, did not lose a game in the 1975-1976 campaign. Since then, a few teams have tried to replicate IU’s enormous feat, most memorably UNLV in 1991 and Kentucky in 2015, but both unbeaten squads lost in the national semifinals. In 2014, Florida carried a 26-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament and did reach the Final Four, but the Gators couldn’t carry their winning streak all the way through to the national title.
Once every few years, a team carries an especially long winning streak into the NCAA Tournament.
It almost never lasts.
If there is one basic exception to this pattern since 1976, it is UCLA in 1995. The Bruins took a 20-game win streak into the NCAA Tournament and managed to end their season with 26-game win streak and a trophy at the victory podium in Seattle. That is the only occasion since 1976 when a men’s college basketball team won the NCAA Tournament after carrying a winning streak of at least 20 games into the Big Dance.
Go through these various national champions over the past 43 years. You will find a lot of examples of teams which won anywhere from 5 to 10 games in a row, late in the season, and then lost in their conference tournament. Sobered by a loss, those teams regrouped and won it all over the next three weekends.
A few teams reeled off very long winning streaks before losing in their conference tournament and romping in March. Kentucky is the best example. The 1996 UK team won 27 in a row and lost in the SEC Tournament final to Mississippi State. It then crushed the field in the Big Dance. The 2012 Kentucky team won 24 games in a row and lost the SEC final to Vanderbilt. It won all of its NCAA Tournament games by at least eight points, four by at least 12.
This is not a five-year or 10-year sample size. This goes back to 1976. In a decidedly imperfect sport played by 18 to 21-year-old human beings, it stands to reason that a bad night at the office — the kind of night which befell Gonzaga on Tuesday against Saint Mary’s — will crop up every now and then. Obviously, it is good if a team can overcome a bad night during the regular season, but it is especially important to overcome that bad night in late March or early April.
This isn’t a knee-jerk thought. This is a line of thought which has nearly 50 years of history behind it, with 1995 UCLA being a sole exception.
Gonzaga cleansed its competitive palate on Tuesday. That doesn’t guarantee March success — nothing is guaranteed in a one-and-done tournament — but history shows it gives the Zags absolutely no reason to be concerned.
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