INDIANAPOLIS — The warm, fuzzy story line of this N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament is Gonzaga’s pursuit of an undefeated season. The Zags, tucked away on the dry, desolate side of the Cascade Range, have long since grown out of their glass slippers — they travel by charter, produce a pipeline of N.B.A. talent and have won more N.C.A.A. tournament games than anyone in the country since 2015.
Still, the spotlight doesn’t always find its way to the boys from Spokane.
Even on the cusp of a landmark run, the Zags found themselves on the undercard Tuesday night, relegated to the opening act for a pair of blue bloods, U.C.L.A. and Michigan.
No matter, Gonzaga quickly carved up what had been a flaming-hot Southern California team, 85-66, to win the West regional final at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Zags (30-0) will advance to play either Michigan, the No. 1 seed in the East region, or 11th-seeded U.C.L.A., which is trying to become the second team to reach the Final Four while coming out of the First Four as one of the last at-large selections in the 68-team field.
For all of Gonzaga’s success since it burst onto the college basketball scene with a run to the round of 8 in 1999, this is just the second time it has reached the Final Four. The Zags lost in the title game to North Carolina in 2017. They were agonizingly close in 2015 and 2019, losing in a regional final. And another opportunity was lost to the pandemic last season, which the Zags concluded with a 31-2 record and a No. 2 ranking in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Much as Gonzaga Coach Mark Few has tried to keep his players on assignments and responsibilities that come with each game plan — something they have largely adhered to — freshman Jalen Suggs admitted that with two games left, his team has eyes on the possibility of an undefeated season, which has not been accomplished since Indiana in 1976.
“It’s hard not to think about it,” Suggs said. “We try to keep our minds off of it and keep focused on the task at hand.”
On this night, though, it all came so easily — just as it has throughout the tournament.
Gonzaga, which has had one game closer than double digits all season, has cruised past Norfolk State, Oklahoma, Creighton and U.S.C. with no game closer than 16 points.
The Zags were so unencumbered on Tuesday that Drew Timme, the mustachioed, headband-wearing sophomore center from Dallas, seemed to go through his entire catalog of flexes after scoring — showing off a bicep, twirling his finger or shaking his head after tossing in a jump hook over Evan Mobley, suggesting that the Trojans’ lithe 7-foot freshman could not guard him.
For one night, he was not wrong. Mobley is likely to be one of the first players picked in the 2021 N.B.A. draft but he had little success trying to thwart Timme, who plays with patience and a surfeit of post moves.
Timme set the tone for the thumping just moments into the game, when he stripped U.S.C. point guard Tahj Eaddy of the ball at one end and drew a foul from Mobley at the other after pump faking him into the air. He scored 13 of Gonzaga’s first 23 points. In all, Timme finished with 23 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals.
“It set the tone that, hey, we’re going to be aggressive,” Few said of Timme’s steal. “This thing’s going to start with defense.”
The only moment the Zags’ momentum was slowed was a sobering one. Referee Bert Smith collapsed in front of the Gonzaga bench after he had run down the court. He pivoted in the corner and then keeled over, his head hitting the floor with a thud.
Paramedics rushed to attend to Smith, who remained breathing while lying on his back. As Few huddled his players to the side of the court, guard Joel Ayayi and assistant coach Tommy Lloyd peeked over to check on Smith, who was eventually carried off on a stretcher. He was alert and stable and was not taken to a hospital, an N.C.A.A. spokesman said. He was replaced by an alternate referee.
When play resumed — with the score 11-4 in favor of Gonzaga — so did the beat down.
The game had seemed to promise some intrigue: pitting the most proficient scoring team inside the 3-point arc against the team most adept at defending within it.
U.S.C. is one of the tallest teams in the country with the Mobley brothers, Evan and Isaiah, standing 7-foot and 6-foot-10 being flanked by 6-foot-8 Drew Peterson and 6-foot-7 Isaiah White. The Trojans’ zone defense all but forms a picket fence around the basket. But for all their height, the Trojans do not handle the basketball particularly well and Gonzaga repeatedly doubled Evan Mobley and stripped other Trojans of the ball.
Those steals, six in the first half, sent the Zags off and running, leaving U.S.C. Coach Andy Enfield fuming at his players and then the referees, wondering what became of the team that had routed Drake, Kansas and Oregon on its way to a regional final for the first time in 20 years. Gonzaga led 49-30 at halftime.
The second half was spent largely running out the clock, which expired just as fans on the West Coast were sitting down to eat dinner.
The schedule is made largely by the networks that broadcast the games, CBS and TBS. Tuesday’s games were broadcast on the cable network. TBS spokesman Jay Moskowitz declined to explain why the Zags were put in the early game, which began when much of the country — including the entire West Coast — was still at work.
Both games featured a team from the Los Angeles market, but the networks often prefer to put U.C.L.A. in prime slots — as they have in all five games the Bruins have played. And with a No. 1 seed like Michigan, which has a national following, it may have been a predictable decision.
Not that it bothered Few. He said, simply and seemingly without irony, that Gonzaga fans had their priorities in order.
“Trust me, our fans, they’re not at work,” he said. “If you think they’re at work, you don’t know the Zag fans. Everything’s shut down, and everybody was watching.”