“If he loses this one, they’ll kill him.”
The words were so jarring that they forced everyone in the area to look around for what had prompted them. A small television sitting on top of an out of place stool in the middle of the sporting goods store revealed the source.
Kentucky, the biggest, baddest team in college basketball, was jogging into the locker room leading lowly 16-seed San Jose State by a mere six points at halftime. It was the first game of what would ultimately become one of the most dominant NCAA tournament runs the sport has ever seen. In this moment, though, it was something else.
The sporting goods store employee standing next to the one who had served up the murder prediction laughed.
“I’m not joking. If they choke again, and they do it like this, they will kill him before he makes it back to Lexington.”
In 1996, this was Rick Pitino’s reputation to a healthy contingent of folks within the state of Kentucky, and to a decent amount of others outside the Commonwealth. Never mind the man had resurrected one of college basketball’s most storied programs from the lowest point in its history. It mattered little that the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship had started the decade hampered by three years of probation, a two-year postseason ban, and a one-year ban from playing any games on TV.
In the minds of Kentucky fans, step one for Pitino was clearing those hurdles. Barreling through them was ok too. Step two was returning the program to its rightful spot atop the college basketball world. Patience with the timeframe attached to step two was wearing thin.
In Kentucky’s first trip to the NCAA tournament since its brush with the death penalty, it was on the wrong end of a regional final classic against Duke that many still believe is the greatest college basketball game ever played. A year later, UK dropped a Final Four heartbreaker to Chris Webber and the rest of Michigan’s Fab Five. In 1994, Pitino’s team — a No. 3 seed — was upset by Marquette in the second round of the Big Dance. Twelve months later, the top-seeded Wildcats won their first three tournament games by 22 points or more before being dealt an embarrassing 74-61 loss by North Carolina in the Elite Eight.
The succeeding two decades would see Pitino establish a reputation for himself as, among many other things, one of the greatest NCAA tournament coaches in history. In 1996, he was simply the high-profile coach who couldn’t win the big one.
This is not a career arc specific to Rick Pitino.
When Christian Laettner hit the shot that broke Kentucky’s heart in 1992 and sent Duke to the Final Four, Mike Krzyzewski was less than a year removed from carrying around the same stigma that would dog Pitino in the mid-’90s.
Coach K, the man now commonly referred to as “the modern day John Wooden,” was once Coach K, annual choke artist. A quick Google search of “Mike Krzyzewski” “the big one” and “1991” simultaneously confirms this fact and sends the searcher into a bizarro world.
Nearly every story written about Duke’s 1991 national championship game triumph over Kansas — which came two days after the Blue Devils stunned overwhelming favorite UNLV — features some reference to Krzyzewski’s entrenched reputation for not being able to get the job done on the biggest stage.
The very first question posed to Coach K during the postgame press conference following his team’s 72-65 triumph over Kansas was about “having the monkey off your back.” YouTube videos featuring pregame and postgame coverage of Duke’s wins over both UNLV and Kansas that year confirm Krzyzewski’s failures in four previous Final Four trips was the unrivaled focus of the college basketball world’s attention in 1991.
For an entire generation of sports fans, this is something of a revelation. Krzyzewski is now as compatible with success of the highest degree as Bill Belichick, Nick Saban, or Phil Jackson. Among countless other accomplishments, his resume is comprised of five national championships, 12 Final Four appearances, and three Olympic gold medals as the coach of USA Basketball.
When Krzyzewski finally broke through in 1991, the man he deprived of a first championship was Roy Williams. This would prove to be the first chapter of Williams’ own “can’t win the big one” story, one which would wind up being even lengthier and more well-known than Coach K’s. He ultimately broke through in 2005, and retired earlier this week as one of the most decorated coaches in the history of the sport.
Every coach who is now synonymous with college basketball success of the highest degree — Krzyzewski, Williams, John Calipari, Bill Self, Jay Wright, Tony Bennett — was once synonymous with something else.
The narrative is always the narrative until it becomes something else, and that something else is almost always something that bears no resemblance to its past form.
By any rational line of thought, Gonzaga is one of the top six or seven programs in men’s college basketball right now.
The Bulldogs are just the fourth program in the history of the sport to go to six consecutive Sweet 16s — Duke, North Carolina and UCLA are the other three. They’ve been to 22 consecutive NCAA tournaments, the third longest active streak in the nation (Kansas and Michigan State are the only programs with longer streaks). They’re the only program besides Kansas that has won at least one game in each of the last 12 NCAA tournaments. Lastly, Gonzaga has been a No. 1 or No. 2 seed five times since 2013.
Of course none of those numbers really hone in on the primary focus here: The 2020-21 Zags.
On the eve of the 2021 Final Four, Gonzaga sits at 30-0, two wins away from becoming the first men’s college basketball team in 45 years to complete a perfect season. Mark Few’s team has been historically dominant in the process, becoming the first team in over 60 years to win 27 consecutive games by double digits. Their average margin of victory of 23.1 ppg is the highest of any team over the last 20 years. They have two First Team All-Americans, and neither of them are the Bulldog who is likely going to be a top three pick in this summer’s NBA Draft.
These staggering numbers tell one side of the story. The responses to any tweet from a major national brand about Gonzaga tell the other.
They don’t play in a real conference
They always choke
They’re about to choke again
They’ll NEVER win the one that matters most
There were many who believed that once Gonzaga finally reached a Final Four — which they did in 2017 before falling to North Carolina in the national title game — the doubts and the outright mistruths about their performances in March would be pruned significantly. If anything, they’ve multiplied.
The perception is that Gonzaga uses the West Coast Conference to build a sparkling record and earn a gaudy seed for the NCAA tournament, where annually they slip up before they should because they’re finally playing “real” teams.
The reality is that Gonzaga has been beaten by a worse-seeded team only three times since 2008, the most recent occurrence being a loss to a third-seeded Texas Tech team that wound up coming just a few seconds away from winning the 2019 national title. During this current streak of 22 consecutive tournament appearances, the Zags have played to or above their seed level 16 times.
To some, none of this seems to matter. They always choke, because, well, I say they always choke.
Again, in college basketball, the narrative remains the narrative until the most seismic of shifts explodes the narrative into a million indistinguishable pieces. The anecdotal will always trump the tangible in this sport, and there is no gradual stigma shed. Your reputation is your reputation until you do something that turns it inside out and morphs it into its antithesis. The razor-thin margin between two extremes seems wholly unfair, but it’s also a direct reflection of the NCAA tournament and the unabated power it wields.
Thirty years ago, Mike Krzyzewski was a good coach who was never going to be great because he couldn’t win the big one. Five years ago, Jay Wright and Villanova could never make it out of the tournament’s first weekend despite their lofty seeding. Two years ago, Virginia’s style was never going to translate to success in a three-week, single elimination tournament.
Now, Gonzaga is still a program from a mid-major conference that will never achieve the status of being a college hoops powerhouse because they’ll never get the job done when the stakes are the highest.
When you’re dealing with the anatomy of anything related to college hoops, history tells us that “never” can’t be removed from one’s DNA by any sort of slow and methodical means. It has to be blown to bits by a singular, cathartic moment of glory.
Gonzaga is two wins away from college basketball’s most elusive and desired metamorphosis. Make the change happen, and you’ll never go back.