The Gonzaga Bulldogs have reached their first Final Four in program history, something that has been 18 years coming. They have done so, in the last two rounds, by beating an 11-seeded Xavier team that knocked off both Arizona and Florida State. They will now face the surprise 7-seed out of the East, South Carolina, who came out of a region that was presumed to belong to defending champion Villanova or preseason No. 1 Duke.
So, they avoided the top-seeded teams in their half of the bracket, who all fell to upsets. I’ve seen plenty of references to their easy path. Clay Travis may be the most prominent.
I’m not going to tell you that they have faced the most difficult road, but it’s also not unusual for a team to reach the championship game while getting through the wreckage of earlier upsets. Here are the teams that faced the highest combined seed totals to reach the final (I’ve included Gonzaga, who of course is not guaranteed to beat a hot South Carolina team, for comparison):
So, Gonzaga has had the easiest potential path, in terms of seeds faced, since … North Carolina a year ago. I don’t recall people deriding North Carolina a year ago for catching breaks, but the run was almost identical until the Tar Heels faced Villanova in the final. The highest-seeded team faced before then was a 5-seed. UNLV had the “easiest” run to a title back in 1990, when they blew Duke out in the championship game, but history doesn’t discount that one.
This is about Gonzaga. Yes, they may have caught some breaks. Every team that wins gets this far needs talent and some luck, whether it be winning a close game with that late shot at the buzzer against another great team, or avoiding them. But you beat the teams in front of you, and every champion has been the only team that did not lose a game to someone in the tournament.
Gonzaga was probably due some. Over the previous 18 tournaments, they were eliminated by the 1-seed in seven of them. They faced a 1 or 2-seed, or both, in over half of them. Setting aside the first game, they played the highest possible seed in later rounds two-thirds of the time.
So while they will go through the bracket swerving through the wreckage of prior upsets, they aren’t alone. Of the 64 teams to reach a championship game, 16 of them (25%) faced only one team seeded 4th or better on their route to the title game. Most of those were top seeds (lower seeds that advanced had to break through against the top seeds earlier). In fact, if we look at just 1-seeds and 2-seeds to advance to a title game, nearly one-third (14 of 43) got there by playing one or fewer teams seeded 4th or better.