If you had told any college basketball fan that by the end of January, the Gonzaga Bulldogs would be the lone undefeated team and No. 1 atop the AP Poll, nobody would have believed you.
But here we are, fresh into February and the Bulldogs are 22-0 and have defeated Pac-12 teams like Washington and Arizona and ranked conference opponents like Saint Mary’s, along with setting a 3-point record early in the year against No. 21 Iowa State.
While Gonzaga has appeared in 18 straight NCAA tournaments, they have never made it to a Final Four and play in a weak West Coast Conference, yet their stark consistency and unlikely propulsion to the top of the college basketball world have many demanding respect for the Zags.
All of this is to say that I’m not buying UConn is dead.
Sitting in a conference that is regarded as weak, much like the WCC, many Husky fans are clamoring and grasping at straws for a way out. But what if we don’t need a way out? If anything, Gonzaga’s success has proven that the talent matters, not the conference.
UConn is already in a much better place than Gonzaga for a few reasons. For one, they actually have championships. They are already slated to play big names like Syracuse and defending national champion Villanova in the coming years, giving them opportunities to remain relevant. The American is in better shape than the WCC. Cincinnati is No. 14 and SMU is sitting just outside the cusp of No. 25. Temple and Memphis are in decent shape, much more so than San Diego or Pepperdine.
Jalen Adams is as dynamic a point guard as any, mirroring many of his offensive stats with that of Gonzaga’s top guard Nigel Williams-Gross; and he’s only a sophomore. While injuries hamper the current squad, the experience gained by Christian Vital as a result will surely prove to be valuable in the future, as his talent level at the start of next season will undoubtedly be miles ahead of where it would be if everyone was healthy.
UConn faces a tough road next season. Everyone knows that it would take Terry Larrier magically fixing his ACL, Alterique Gilbert getting a new shoulder and Juwan Durham and Steven Enoch getting bionic ankles for UConn to have a fighting chance against Cincy and SMU in the regular season and conference tournament. This season is essentially a throwaway.
Next season is going to be the rebuilding, working-out-the-kinks season that many thought this one might have turned into. There’s a good chance that Larrier won’t be the same, as recovering from an ACL tear is hard enough without having to sit on back-to-back redshirted seasons. Gilbert will basically be starting from the beginning again, and it was clear from the first few games of the season that he and Adams have some leadership issues to work out, especially with Rodney Purvis leaving.
Enoch will have to be the starting center without Amida Brimah anymore, and that will take a big adjustment on his part in terms of skill and minutes. Mamadou Diarra is a huge wild card. Luckily, Vance Jackson is coming into his own nicely and very well may be the Conference Rookie of the Year if he keeps this up.
All of this is to say that it’s not going to be easy for UConn next year, but maybe it’s too early to start hitting the panic button on the future of the program. Gonzaga, despite a history of NCAA tournament turmoil and relatively weak conference competition, have kept themselves afloat and relevant enough to be worthy of college basketball’s top ranking.
UConn doesn’t share the history of tournament turmoil -- after all, they’ve never lost a national championship game -- nor is their conference as weak as the WCC. Those two reasons alone should keep Husky fans at bay. But if any more confusion needs to be cleared: These kids are talented. If anything, this season has shown that the dogs have way too much fight in them to ever bow to the criticism of fans or beat writers. If Gonzaga has proved anything, it’s that a well-oiled machine is the key to success.
Gonzaga’s fate was in their hands, and now they’re No. 1. There’s nothing indicating that UConn can’t do the same.