SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — The greatest season so far in Gonzaga basketball history ended with the Bulldogs falling short of their goal but many of those players who slugged it out with North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament title game will be back for another try next season.
The focus for now shifts to the loss to graduation of center Przemek Karnowski and guard Jordan Mathews and the possible early loss to the NBA of Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins.
But most of the team that finished 37-2 is expected to return and is almost certain to have enough talent to earn a 20th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“We did a lot of things that people didn’t expect us to do,” Williams-Goss said. “We were right there, good enough to win a national championship.”
During their remarkable run, the Zags were ranked No. 1 in the nation for four weeks and earned a No. 1 seed in the tournament. The only games they lost were the regular-season finale against BYU, breaking a 29-game winning streak, and Monday night’s title game .
The Zags’ trip to Glendale, Arizona, was their first appearance in the Final Four, one of the last major milestones that had eluded the program. Now their biggest unrealized goal is a national title. Gonzaga played North Carolina tight but foul trouble and an inability to hit shots in the second half led to a 71-65 loss.
“To be so close for us is a temporarily crushing blow right now,” coach Mark Few said. “But I’m hoping and knowing that perspective will come with time.”
The biggest offseason loss is likely to be Karnowski, the big-bearded fifth-year senior who became the face of the Zags. The 7-foot-1 center averaged 12 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. But he made just 1 of 8 from the field against North Carolina.
“We threw the ball into the post and I didn’t deliver,” Karnowski said after the game.
But that is not really the true measure of Karnowski’s impact on the program. He has the most wins of any player in Division I history, at 137, and was a part of both Gonzaga teams that reached No. 1 rankings and a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, including the 2013 team.
“Przemek’s one of the greatest Zags of all time,” said guard Josh Perkins.
Also done is Mathews, a graduate transfer from California who was outstanding in his lone season as a Zag. He shot 39 percent from 3-point range, including the game-winning shot against West Virginia that lifted the Zags into the Final Four.
“We broke the glass ceiling everybody said we couldn’t get over,” Mathews said.
A big question is whether Collins will return for his sophomore year. The 7-footer from Las Vegas is the top recruit in program history, and he averaged 10 points and 5.9 rebounds per game in just 17 minutes. Many have suggested he may be a one-and-done player.
“I’m not thinking about that right now,” Collins said after the title game, in which he fouled out with 5 minutes left after scoring nine points.
Williams-Goss, a junior who was a second team All-American, led the Zags at 16.9 points per game and added 5.9 rebounds and more than 4 assists. Williams-Goss played his first two seasons at Washington and had to sit out a year before playing this season. He has been mum about his future, but it seems unlikely that he would have sat out an entire season to play only one season with the Zags.
Expected to return next season are forward Johnathan Williams; guards Perkins and Silas Melson and post player Killian Tillie. Little-used Rui Hachimura, a player from Japan with huge potential, is also back.
The season began with an easy win over Utah Valley on Nov. 11 and the Zags rolled to victories in their first 29 games. For the first time, they went undefeated through their tough nonconference slate. As the season progressed they won most of their games by double digits, often without trailing, and raised prospects of going through the season undefeated. That ended when BYU came to Spokane and beat them 79-71 in the regular-season finale.
But the Zags rolled through the West Coast Conference tournament and then beat South Dakota State, Northwestern, West Virginia, Xavier and South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament.
The win over Northwestern was the 500th of Few’s career, making him the third-fastest coach to reach 500 wins after Adolph Rupp and Jerry Tarkanian. He is 503-113 as coach of the Zags since 2000 and has never missed an NCAA Tournament.