Column: Road to Final Four and NCAA title got a little smoother thanks to upsets

Top-seeded Gonzaga's Josh Perkins (13), Przemek Karnowski (24), Silas Melson (0) and Nigel Williams-Goss (5) came through the NCAA tournament's first weekend unscathed, unlike other highly regarded teams.
(Gene Sweeney Jr. / Getty Images)

For Gonzaga, the road ahead looks straight and clear. No twists, no turns. The Bulldogs just need to keep their foot on the gas.

As guard Nigel Williams-Goss put it: “It’s survive, advance and move on.”

After a weekend in which the 2017 NCAA tournament verged on swerving out of control with a string of upsets and near upsets, the top-seeded team in the West Regional emerged with a significantly clearer path to the national championship.


Statistical predictors such as Jeff Sagarin and FiveThirtyEight see Gonzaga’s route to the Final Four as the smoothest. There is no fellow No. 1 seed standing in the way of a championship game, thanks to Villanova’s loss in the East.

“We know we’ve got a job to do,” Coach Mark Few said last week. “We’ve got to take care of that job.”

This March has been particularly unpredictable, with no overwhelming pick to go all the way.

Heading into the Sweet 16 later this week, the list of survivors who could take advantage includes Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, Arizona, UCLA and Baylor.

Everyone’s odds got a little better with that elimination of Villanova, the overall top seed, at the hands of a veteran Wisconsin team. But that wasn’t the only upset.

Second-seeded Duke fell to seventh-seeded South Carolina in the East. Louisville, another No. 2 team, was upset by Michigan, which has been on a roll since the Big Ten Conference tournament.

“Found another way to win,” guard Derrick Walton Jr. said after the normally hot-shooting Wolverines struggled early from three-point range. “That’s been our identity in the last month and a half, finding different ways to win.”

Third-seeded Florida State — a potential roadblock for Gonzaga in the West — had its season end with a 26-point loss to 11th-seeded Xavier.

The teams that escaped breaking down?

Top-seeded North Carolina needed clutch baskets and a questionable non-charge in the final moments to squeak past Arkansas. Kentucky barely got by Wichita State. Oregon did the same against pesky Rhode Island.

As for Gonzaga, the Bulldogs received some help in a tight game against Northwestern, the feel-good story making its first-ever tournament appearance.

Two days later, people are still talking about the play that occurred with less than 5:00 remaining.

Gonzaga forward Zach Collins reached up through the basket to block a Northwestern shot, which should have resulted in two points for the Wildcats. Officials allowed play to continue and Northwestern Coach Chris Collins, expressing his displeasure, was hit with a technical foul.

If the four-point swing proved crucial to a 79-73 victory, Williams-Goss wasn’t about to apologize, saying: “We’ll take the win whether it’s pretty, ugly.”

The Bulldogs have been a mid-major power for almost two decades now but have somehow failed to make the Final Four even once. This season could be different.

Arguably the best player in the country, Williams-Goss is joined by a formidable pair of 7-footers in Collins and Przemek Karnowski. Johnathan Williams is a threat at forward, and the bench is deep enough that Few can go big or small.

It all adds up to a team averaging almost 84 points, which ranks 14th nationally. The defense is even better, ranking sixth at 61.1 points a game.

But any road to the championship is fraught with potential hazards, and there are reasons to doubt the Bulldogs can reach the end.

After early victories over Florida, Iowa State and Arizona, they settled into a relatively easy West Coast Conference schedule. A late loss to Brigham Young ruined their undefeated record.

“It’s been nice to get back on track and doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” Few said with his team winning five in a row since then.

Next comes a tough match-up against fourth-seeded West Virginia on Thursday. Beyond that looms the possibility of a West Regional final against second-seeded Arizona.

The Final Four in Phoenix remains a long way off, but the Bulldogs are close enough to see their destination.

“I’m really happy to get these guys into the Sweet 16,” Few said. “Obviously, we’re hoping and planning for more.”

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