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Gonzaga carries quest for an undefeated season into NCAA Tournament

It seemed as if the dream of a perfect season might end for Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference championship on Tuesday. But Gonzaga found a rhythm in the second half — the Bulldogs were down by 12 points at halftime — to maintain their spotless record and secure an 88-78 win over BYU in the tournament title game.

Gonzaga will now enter the NCAA tournament with an opportunity to match the last perfect season, achieved by Indiana during the 1975-76 campaign, in college basketball history. Per head coach Mark Few, the team has embraced the history attached to this moment.

“We just talked about it in there,” Few said after Tuesday’s win. “We finally, finally acknowledged, like, look, this is a big deal; it puts us in some incredible company. That Kentucky team (2015). … It’s a heck of an accomplishment. It’s really a heck of an accomplishment in lieu of these atmospheres that have been so stale. I give this group of guys just a ton of credit.”

Gonzaga is now the fifth team to enter the NCAA tournament with an undefeated record — joining Indiana State (1979), UNLV (1991), Wichita State (2014) and Kentucky (2015) — since Indiana’s perfect season 45 years ago. None of the teams that followed Indiana have won a title.

Most recently, fans adorned in blue and white sobbed in the stands of Lucas Oil Stadium six years ago after Kentucky suffered a 71-64 loss to Wisconsin in the Final Four in Indianapolis in 2015. Much like Gonzaga, the Wildcats seemed to have it all: size, athleticism and NBA talent. They’d entered the NCAA tournament with a 34-0 record and they were just two wins from perfection when they ran into the Badgers.

Now, Gonzaga will get its shot at history. Although the stars have not aligned for the other undefeated programs in the modern version of the NCAA tournament, Gonzaga has already proved it is a step ahead of the field. It is not only college basketball’s last undefeated team this season, its résumé also includes wins over Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa, Virginia and BYU (three times).

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Jalen Suggs creates space and makes a deep 3-point shot vs. BYU as Gonzaga captures the West Coast Conference title.

“It’s hard not to think about it,” said projected lottery pick Jalen Suggs about the potential for a perfect season, after contributing 23 points to Gonzaga’s win Tuesday. “But I think we’ve all done a good job of staying focused. At some point, you kind of have to acknowledge how special of a thing and how special of a ride that we’re on right now. I think the best part about it is that we’re all excited. We’re all excited to keep it going.”

It’s important to understand the impact of the expanded field and modern format on the pursuit of perfection in college basketball.

Per the NCAA, 19 teams — now 20 — have been perfect upon entering the final chapter of the season. All but four of those teams, including Gonzaga, will have entered the NCAA tournament with zero losses after the expansion of the field to 64 teams in 1985. Indiana’s perfect season unfolded a year after the field had been expanded from 16 teams to 32 teams in 1975. No team has completed a perfect season in the 64-team — now 68 teams — era.

While the perfect teams that fell after Indiana met the same fate, their journeys were different.

In the 1978-79 season, Larry Bird averaged 28.6 PPG and 14.9 RPG for an Indiana State squad that met Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team in the national championship game. It was a surprising run because Bird’s squad had not been ranked entering the season, although it quickly built momentum and generated buzz once the season began. Johnson scored 24 points in his team’s 75-64 win over the Sycamores.

In 1991, UNLV had won every regular season game, too. Larry Johnson (22.7 PPG) led the defending national champion, which featured five future NBA players. They were unstoppable in the tournament too, until they faced Duke — the same team they’d stomped by 30 points in the previous season’s national title game — and lost a 79-77 thriller in the Final Four. That was a shock for college basketball.

The 2013-14 Wichita State squad, however, seemed doomed from the beginning. On Selection Sunday that season, the undefeated Shockers — who hadn’t faced an impressive nonconference slate — were placed on a collision course with an 8-seed Kentucky team led by Julius Randle. Kentucky pulled off the 78-76 win over Wichita State in the second round and then made a run to the national title game, where it lost to UConn, 60-54.

But a year later, the 2015 Kentucky squad seemed like a lock to finish with a perfect record nearly 40 years after Indiana’s run. But Karl-Anthony Towns and Co. didn’t have an answer for Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker in the Final Four, where the Wildcats suffered a 71-64 loss.

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Andrew Nembhard works his way inside and makes a shot for Gonzaga vs. BYU.

Now, Gonzaga will push for the school’s first national title while making NCAA history. The Bulldogs understand what they’re up against.

Like Indiana State, they’re not a sexy Power Five program. Like UNLV, they’re blessed with elite talent (Suggs and Corey Kispert are both projected top-10 picks in ESPN’s latest mock draft). Like Wichita State, they’ve faced a multitude of doubters. And like Kentucky, they’ve stormed through the season with a dominant effort.

And their dream is still alive.

“I’ve been waiting to play in these moments my entire life,” Suggs said Tuesday. “Tonight was surreal.”

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