LAS VEGAS — A hint that this season might be different for Gonzaga’s basketball team came early, when it was thumped by Tennessee in a scrimmage. There have been other periodic reminders: getting walloped by Texas and pounded by Purdue, and losing at home to Loyola Marymount, which ended the Zags’ 75-game home winning streak.
And then there was Tuesday night, when Gonzaga ran out to face St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference championship game dressed in its road blues, signifying it was the lower seed.
But just as it nears another N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament, the stage on which Gonzaga long ago made its national name, the Zags delivered a timely reminder — to the tournament selection committee and others — that they should never be discounted in March.
The message was sent with a 77-51 pasting of St. Mary’s at Orleans Arena, a victory that sends Gonzaga off to tournament selection day with a 28-5 record. That would be a noteworthy accomplishment for most programs, but it is the most losses for a Gonzaga team entering the N.C.A.A. tournament since 2016. And for the first time since 2018, the Zags will not enter the tournament as a No. 1 seed.
“I love it,” said Gonzaga Coach Mark Few, whose team hadn’t worn their away uniforms in the postseason since the 2017 national championship game they lost to North Carolina.
Few, the ever fretful coach, seemed pleased not only to be spared the weight of expectations, but also in the knowledge that his team has blossomed as the regular season draws to a close. The Zags didn’t just beat St. Mary’s in Tuesday’s title game: They jumped to an early lead and — unlike in the teams’ two regular-season meetings, which they split — buried the Gaels (27-6).
The shoulders of the St. Mary’s players slumped with each shot that wouldn’t fall, and their expressions sagged each time Gonzaga sliced through their defense for another basket. The Zags led by 37-19 at halftime and spent the second half stretching the margin to as many as 37 points.
“We were awful,” St. Mary’s Coach Randy Bennett said.
Gonzaga did all this even with its star Drew Timme limited to 20 minutes by foul trouble.
It was all that hampered him. Timme scored 18 points, making 8 of 10 shots, including the basket that made him Gonzaga’s career scoring leader — a mark that had belonged not to Adam Morrison, John Stockton or Dan Dickau but to Frank Burgess, who led the nation in scoring in 1961.
More than the points, though, Timme, a senior forward who has all but closed the door on returning for a fifth season, will be remembered for his record as a Zag: 118-12, and counting.
He has been a wingman for high draft picks like Chet Holmgren and Jalen Suggs as his modest professional prospects have kept him in college. And sometimes his look — mustache, headband and on-court histrionics — obscures his more subtle contributions.
“I knew it was somebody we wanted in our program,” Few said of Timme. “I knew he’d be a good player here and I knew he was a perfect fit just watching how he played. That same confident persona that he showed in those small gyms on the A.A.U. circuit is what he brought to this program.”
“It gives us all that edge,” he added.
That edge is what Gonzaga has been searching for all season. It wasn’t the losses, or the handful of narrow conference victories that were so bothersome to Few. It was how hard the Zags played, how tough they were and how rapt their attention to detail was.
“There were numerous days when I was not fun to be around, as a player or as an assistant coach,” Few said with a laugh. “I probably owe everybody an apology for that. But I was just trying to hold those guys to the standard that all the other teams have hit.”
Timme said he had sensed a similar malaise.
“I’ve won so much in my career, it’s a shock to me not to win,” he said, adding. “How the season has gone made us appreciate the little things — the journey — more. Sometimes it’s hard not to fall into this mind-set of, We’ve just got to get to March. You can’t just wake up and go, ‘Oh, we’re a tough team.’ It’s something you have to get through the dirt and the mud.”
Gonzaga’s offense has also been a work in progress, even though it has hummed along, once again, as the nation’s most efficient team: This is the fourth time in five seasons they have been atop KenPom rankings in that category. (The Zags slumped to third last season.)
Rather than running at a breakneck pace, Gonzaga is — for them — almost deliberate.
“Every year they play with this terrifying, torrid pace,” Brigham Young Coach Mark Pope said. “It’s just not their character so far this year. They just have younger guards who aren’t quite what they had. And Timme has always lent a little bit of gravity to the game. He’s like a secondary transition guy. He’s not a deer out there.”
Instead of running past opponents, the Zags have simply carved up defenses in the half court this season with their myriad cuts and screens, using Timme as the fulcrum from either the high or low post. In Monday’s West Coast semifinals, San Francisco chose to leave Anton Watson, the senior forward who is a valuable defender, unguarded. Watson took advantage, scoring a career-high 20 points.
And after taking more than three minutes to score their first point on Tuesday night, the Zags were just as sublime as ever. The victory was their eighth in a row. Wherever they are seeded on Sunday, Timme said, they will accept the challenge and go looking for more.
“It was nice,” he said, “to be an underdog for once.”