It was not all that unusual in recent seasons to hear, "This is Gonzaga's best team ever."
It might really be true this time.
Often better in a Cinderella role, the Bulldogs ride into the 2017 NCAA Tournament as top dogs thanks to a 32-1 record and a collection of veterans that ranks among the nation's most efficient groups on offense and defense.
Gonzaga burst onto the national scene in 1999 as a No. 10 seed that toppled No. 2 Stanford in the second round and Florida in the Sweet 16. The Zags have advanced to every NCAA Tournament since then but are looking for their first Final Four.
They couldn't get it done as a No. 1 seed in 2013. Or as a No. 2 seed in 2004 and 2015.
The reason coach Mark Few's squad can take that extra step this season mostly rests on Washington transfer point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who is having an All-America season. He is a hard-nosed leader with the one-on-one skills to create offense in the kind of late-game situations that Gonzaga didn't see a lot of in the regular season -- at least in the West Coast Conference.
Nonconference victories over Arizona (the No. 2 seed in the West), Florida and Iowa State show the potential of this group that has size (center Przemek Karnowski), shooting (guards Jordan Mathews and Josh Perkins, among others) and young, first-round NBA talent (7-footer Zach Collins).
The West holds the nation's favorite "underdog" this season, as eighth-seeded Northwestern is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance. The celebration is on in Evanston, Ill.
5 PLAYERS TO KNOW
Arizona G Allonzo Trier: He earned Most Outstanding Player honors in the Pac-12 tournament, scoring 23 points, including four key free throws in the final 17.5 seconds, in an 83-80 title-game victory over Oregon. He is especially adept at getting into the lane and drawing fouls, creating the kind of easy offense that is protection against scoring droughts if a matchup turns into a slugfest.
Florida State F Jonathan Isaac: The 6-foot-10 freshman is a smooth combo forward with guard skills. Your basic matchup nightmare. He is averaging 11.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and is shooting 35.3 percent from 3-point range. Catch him now before he is an NBA lottery pick.
Gonzaga C Przemek Karnowski: Yes, point guard Nigel Williams-Goss is the engine of the Bulldogs' attack, but defenses have to pick their poison with the massive Karnowski, who averages 12.6 points per game. Many opposing centers don't have the size to stop the 7-foot-1, 300-pound senior one-on-one. Double-team him, and the clever Karnowski will find a variety of open 3-point shooters. He is one of the best passing big men in the country.
Notre Dame F Bonzie Colson: The junior averages a double-double, producing 17.5 points and an ACC-best 10.2 rebounds per game. Despite the stats, Colson has been easy to overlook because he doesn't look the part as a 6-5 power forward who wasn't a shiny five-star recruit out of high school.
Maryland PG Melo Trimble: The junior leads Maryland into the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season, having earned unanimous All-Big Ten honors from the league coaches. He is a high-volume shooter who averages 17 points per game, shouldering the burden of getting the inconsistent Terps past No. 11 Xavier and possibly No. 3 Florida State in the second round.
4 NUMBERS TO NOTE
10.4: Steals per game for West Virginia, an average that leads the nation. "Press Virginia" is real.
15: Losses by No. 9 seed Vanderbilt, the most ever by a team to get an at-large bid to the NCAAs. But two recent wins over Florida and hot-shooting from 3-point range show the Commodores belong.
26: Years since the top two seeds in the West region were actually from the West. In 1991, UNLV was No. 1 and Arizona was No. 2. This year, it is Gonzaga and Arizona.
56.5: Points allowed per game by seventh-seeded Saint Mary's, the second-best mark in the nation. The Gaels are a control-the-tempo outfit that needs their man-to-man defense to corral VCU in the opening round and keep the Rams under 60.
3 EARLY UPSETS
No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast University over No. 3 Florida State: The Eagles' high-flying 2013 team crashed the Sweet 16, and this Dunk City squad could be better. The Seminoles' size will be problematic, but Florida Gulf Coast can still soar if it gets running, able to rely on its 50.2 percent shooting from the field.
No. 12 Princeton over No. 5 Notre Dame: The Tigers have won 19 games in a row and went unbeaten in the Ivy League, including in the conference's first-ever postseason tournament. They have balanced scoring, led by guard Devin Cannady (13.7 points per game) and forward Steven Cook (13.7 ppg).
No. 11 Xavier over No. 6 Maryland: The Musketeers lost point guard Edmond Sumner for the season because of a knee injury, but Xavier is tournament-tested and can't be out-toughed. Chris Mack's team has star guard Trevon Bluiett (17.6 points per game), and Xavier beat Butler in the Big East tourney.
2 TEAMS TO BEAT
Arizona is the best team in the region. The Wildcats are hot, healthy, deep, have size, can shoot, play defense and are well-coached. Sure, they lost to Gonzaga 69-62 in Los Angeles on Dec. 2, but they didn't have guard Allonzo Trier (NCAA suspension) and were playing their first game without point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who was out with a high ankle sprain but returned by the end of December.
Can Gonzaga do it? Sure. The addition of a pair of Pac-12 transfers -- point guard Nigel Williams-Goss and shooting guard Jordan Mathews -- has made the Bulldogs complete, but athletic opponents await, starting in the Sweet 16. That could be problematic, although the deadly efficiency makes this Gonzaga ceiling higher than in previous seasons.
1 GAME WE NEED TO SEE
If you were going to nitpick Arizona's team, it might be point guard play. Parker Jackson-Cartwright is speedy and great with the ball in his hands, but he is 5-11 and doesn't start. Starter Kadeem Allen is a combo guard who can be turned over (seven turnovers in a first-round loss to Wichita State last season). A regional final matchup against frenetic fourth-seeded West Virginia -- the nation's best at full-court pressure -- would be a high-intensity affair with upset possibilities.