In this college basketball season of Duke mega-sensation Zion Williamson and the fabulous fellow freshmen who are his running mates, picking any team other than the Blue Devils to cut down the nets in Minneapolis might come off as disingenuous.
Hey, I’ve been called worse.
But I promise I’m not predicting a Duke stumble just to be different. Rather, it’s that I can’t get behind the idea of picking a bunch of first-year players to navigate a tournament in which experience, togetherness and nerves of steel are every bit as vital as extraordinary talent.
Yes, freshman-led teams — Kentucky in 2012, Duke in 2015 — have won it all before. But most champions through the years have more closely resembled Louisville in 2013, Connecticut in 2014, Villanova in 2016, North Carolina in 2017 and Villanova again in 2018. Even in the one-and-done era, teams that have been around the block are as dangerous as ever.
Also, though Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015 were hyped plenty, they didn’t deal with the sort of round-the-clock obsession Williamson and, by extension, his teammates do. Williamson has been as famous as LeBron James this season. That’s pressure, folks.
This is West No. 1 seed Gonzaga’s 20th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance under elite coach Mark Few. That’s a lot of years without winning a national title, but consider what the Zags have done in the last four postseasons: four Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and one runner-up finish. They’ve been building toward that final step.
I don’t mind that the Zags fell on their faces against Saint Mary’s in the championship game of their conference tournament. If anything, it was the perfect opportunity to reset and get back to the way they started the season. Anyone remember the opponent they beat in the Maui Invitational title game? Hint: It rhymes with ‘‘fluke.’’
I’ve got Duke losing so early — to a Mississippi State squad loaded with fearless upperclassmen — that it’ll shock the world. I’ve got Virginia, which last season became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16, bouncing back with a run to the Final Four. And I’ve got Kentucky catching fire and reaching the precipice of ultimate glory.
But Gonzaga will be ready. Rui Hachimura is a first-team All-American. Brandon Clarke is a bring-the-house-down athlete. Josh Perkins is the senior you want as your point guard. And ex-Simeon star Zach Norvell Jr. is there to knock down backbreaking threes.
The Zags are complete. It’s their time. It’s their turn.