Can Gonzaga top ’96 Kentucky, ’90 UNLV as most dominant NCAA Tournament team since 1985?

Gonzaga enters the Final Four with a 30-0 record and a chance to be the first undefeated Division I men’s basketball team since Indiana in 1975-76.  

There’s even more at stake. The Bulldogs have put themselves in the conversation as the most-dominant tournament team in the expanded bracket era, which began in 1985, after blowing out their first four opponents in the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.  

That conversation will be more interesting if Gonzaga wins it all. 

There are teams that won the national championship since the Big Dance expanded to 64 teams at the front of those debates. UNLV dominated the NCAA tournament in 1989-90 with Jerry Tarkanian. Kentucky tore through the Big Dance with Rick Pitino in 1995-96.  

Those two teams are generally considered the standard since the tournament expanded to 64 teams.  

Does this Gonzaga team hold up? The Bulldogs have burned through the tournament with All-Americans Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme. That run continues Saturday against No. 11 UCLA in the Final Four. 

The Bulldogs have a statistical case that for the moment compares. Sporting News takes a closer look at those numbers: 

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Kentucky had best NCAA Tournament run 

Pitino used a Kentucky roster that had nine future NBA players to dominate the 1995-96 tournament. The Wildcats won their six tournament games by an average of 21.2 points per game, which remains the highest margin since 1985.  

Here is a closer look at the five national champions with the highest margin of victory in the Big Dance.  

1 Kentucky (1996) 21.5
2 North Carolina (2009) 20.2
3 Villanova (2016) 19.0
4 UNLV (1990) 18.7
5 Villanova (2018) 17.7

Gonzaga has defeated its first four opponents by an average of 24 ppg and has a legitimate chance to challenge that record. Just keep in mind that Kentucky beat its first four opponents by an average of 28.3 ppg. The Bulldogs need to win by an average of 16.5 ppg in the next two games to match that. 

UNLV dominated last two weekends

The Runnin’ Rebels won the national championship in 1990 with Jerry Tarkanian and a roster that featured three future NBA players in Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony.  

The Rebels were dominant from the Sweet 16 round to the national championship, a run that included a 131-101 victory against Loyola-Marymount in the Elite Eight and a 103-73 victory against Duke in the national championship game.  

UNLV won those four games by an average of 17.8 points per game. Here is a look at the five national champions with the highest margin of victory from the Sweet 16 to the national championship:  

1 UNLV (1990) 17.8
2 Kentucky (1996) 16.8
3 Villanova (2016) 16.3
4 North Carolina (2009) 16.0
5 Villanova (2018) 14.3

It’s the same five teams. Gonzaga won its Sweet 16 and Elite Eight matchups against Creighton and USC, respectively, by an average of 18.5 ppg. They need to win the next two games by an average of 17 ppg. to match the Rebels. 

Who had toughest path?   

Fans of those Kentucky and UNLV teams would look at the margin of victory and scoff at the notion that Gonzaga belongs in the same sentence.  

Kentucky can point to its tournament path in 1995-96. The combined seed total of their six opponents was 36, and they went through Utah with Andre Miller and Keith Van Horn, Wake Forest with Tim Duncan and UMass with Marcus Camby before beating Syracuse in the national championship game.

The Final Four and championship games were tighter, but there was no question the Wildcats were the best team.  

They would finish as the national runner up in 1997 and won the national title again in 1998.  

UNLV faced teams with a combined seed total of 54. The Rebels did beat a Jim Jackson-led Ohio State team in the second round, and No. 11 Loyola Marymount was not your typical double-digit seed with Bo Kimble. The Rebels beat Georgia Tech and Duke in the Final Four.  

Gonzaga’s combined seed total is 48 heading into the Final Four matchup with No. 11 UCLA – another team that isn’t your typical double-digit seed. No. 1 Baylor or No. 2 Houston would be the potential national championship matchup opponents. 

The one thing all three teams share is top-notch offense. Gonzaga averages a Division I-best 91.6 ppg. UNLV averaged 93.5 and Kentucky averaged 91.4. In order for those comparisons to stick, however, the Bulldogs have to win their next two games to maintain that 90 ppg. number. 

Gonzaga’s perfect trump card 

Gonzaga belongs in another conversation with Kentucky and UNLV, but with different teams. The UNLV 1990-91 and Kentucky 2014-15 teams are the last two teams to reach the Final Four with an undefeated record.  

UNLV lost in a 79-77 shocker to Duke, which got a clutch 3-pointer from Bobby Hurley to help pull the upset. The Wildcats, led by coach John Calipari, lost to 71-64 to Wisconsin.  

That is the trump card Gonzaga can pull if they finish the job in Indianapolis. 

Kentucky finished 34-2 in 1995-96, and UNLV finished 35-5 in 1989-90. They dominated the NCAA tournament, but Gonzaga is on pace to at least compete with the margin of victory. The rest is speculation. 

Would the Wildcats and Rebels beat the Bulldogs? It might not be the hypothetical blowout you think it is, and you could pull in that 2016 Villanova team for the ultimate expanded bracket Final Four. 

Of course, the Bulldogs have to finish the job. 

Otherwise, they’ll join the Gonzaga 2016-17 team in this conversation

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