Gonzaga was on the brink of achieving something we haven’t seen in a long, long time: trying to become the first team in almost 50 years to win the men’s NCAA Tournament after going undefeated all season. A fairly common occurrence in the 1970s with powerhouses like UCLA and Indiana, it’s since become nearly impossible to run the table in the regular season, let alone carry it into the tourney and cut down the nets at the end.
The Bulldogs started the season at 31-0, but they lost their bid for a perfect season in the last game of the year. The Baylor Bears blew out the Zags, 86-70, in the national championship game of the 2021 men’s NCAA tournament to ensure that Bobby Knight’s 1976 Indiana team remains men’s college basketball’s most recent perfect team for another year.
Here’s a look back at all the teams who entered the NCAA tournament undefeated only to see their championship hopes fizzle when it mattered the most.
The sensational seven
Seven teams in NCAA history have played an entire regular season without losing a game, then carried it into the tournament and won the championship. This hasn’t happened since 1975-76.
These obviously represent some of the greatest teams, with the greatest players of all time. Bill Russell played on the San Francisco championship team, UCLA had Lew Alcindor (known now as Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and later Bill Walton, and the Hoosiers were coached by the legendary Bobby Knight.
The men’s college basketball teams that lost their perfect seasons
The list of teams that dominated the regular season, only to falter in the NCAA tournament is far larger. A total of 12 teams in NCAA history went undefeated in the regular season, then lost in the tournament.
- 1950-51 Columbia Lions
- 1960-61 Ohio State Buckeyes
- 1967-68 Houston Cougars
- 1967-68 St. Bonaventure Bonnies
- 1970-71 Marquette Eagles
- 1970-71 Pennsylvania Quakers
- 1974-75 Indiana Hoosiers
Star player Scott May broke his arm in the regular season finale against Purdue, and while the rest of team was good enough to prop up Indiana early in the tourney, they eventually lost to No. 5 seed Kentucky. In the regular season May scored 25 points against the Wildcats, but managed to play just two minutes in the Elite Eight.
- 1975-76 Rutgers Scarlet Knights
A Cinderella season for Rutgers saw the Scarlet Knights go undefeated in the regular season, but still not garner enough respect to earn a top seed. Still, the team valiantly fought their way to a Final Four, before losing to Michigan.
- 1990-91 UNLV Rebels
One of the most exciting teams in modern basketball, UNLV, anchored by Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon ran the table in the regular season and made it to Final Four before suffering a grueling two point loss to Duke.
- 2013-14 Wichita State Shockers
The Shockers were a No. 9 seed despite running the table in the regular season. The tournament seeding was unkind to Wichita State, who faced Kentucky in the third round, eventually losing. Headlined by Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker, it ended up being Fred VanVleet who went on to experience the most stardom in the NBA, now a staple of the Raptors.
- 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats
Unquestionably the most loaded team on this list, Kentucky boasted NINE players who would go on to the NBA, most notably Karl-Anthony Towns, and Devin Booker. Entering as a No. 1 seed, Kentucky survived a close scare to Notre Dame, before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
- 2020-2021 Gonzaga Bulldogs
The Zags started 31-0 but couldn’t finish the job. Baylor beat them by 16 points in the national title game.
Which brings us to Gonzaga
There was never doubt that based on talent Gonzaga had the ability to make a deep run in the tournament and possibly even win the championship. That said, there were more than a few questions about how legit their regular season run was. The WCC is a fundamentally weak conference, and the Zags’ biggest test was erased when their regular season game against Baylor was cancelled due to Covid earlier in the season.
The tournament solidified what we thought we already knew about this fantastic Gonzaga team. Drew Timme, Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs are All-Americans. Gonzaga won its first four games in the NCAA tournament tournament by nearly 24 points per game, then won a classic in the Final Four on Suggs’ deep buzzer-beater to stun UCLA in overtime. Baylor was the biggest test the team had, and the Bears left little doubt they were the superior team.
Maybe Baylor would have been the team going for an undefeated season under different circumstances. The Bears started this season 18-0 before having to pause for three weeks because of Covid. Baylor dropped two games after the pause, but looked like a heavyweight again in March Madness.
Gonzaga had a great shot to become an undefeated national championship, but it wasn’t meant to be. Baylor was simply better.