We’re only one week into February, and it already feels like March.
Over the past two and a half weeks, the college basketball world has been granted its guilty pleasure: upsets. Top-10 teams have suffered a total of 17 losses during the 16-day stretch, 16 of which were to lower or unranked opponents. Not to mention that three top-five teams have dropped games on the same night twice (Jan. 24 and Feb. 4).
Recently, the AP Poll has been shifting teams around the top-25 like an anxious student second-guessing before handing in an exam—it’s simply chaotic. For instance, Kentucky—the preseason No. 2—has slid down to the No. 15 spot. Similarly, Florida State has plummeted eight spots, and now is at No. 14.
Consequently, many are questioning if preseason contenders like Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, or even Villanova will piece it all together before tournament play. Needless to say, amateur bracketologists are panicking. And, no matter what he says, I’m confident ESPN’s expert Joe Lunardi is scratching his head, too. It seems like everyone is losing.
Well, just about everyone.
Gonzaga has slowly made its way to the No. 1 ranking, sitting at an unblemished 24-0. Head coach Mark Few’s group has silently climbed the polls to overtake the nation’s powerhouses, despite playing in the West Coast Conference—a group that sits ninth in the RPI rankings.
The Bulldogs haven’t just been winning. They’ve been steamrolling over the opposition on a consistent basis. Gonzaga has been downing teams by an average of 23.7 points. It has shown an ability to both defend and score at will. Few’s crew has eclipsed the 90-point mark five times this season, including a pair of 100-point performances. By the same token, it has only conceded 80 or more points once this season.
Following Gonzaga’s ascension to the top of the rankings, several media outlets immediately jumped on the mid-major’s bandwagon.
Last week, I tuned into ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. As usual, co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon ran down the day’s developments in sports. Not long after I began watching, they raised the question whether Gonzaga is “for real”.
I wasn’t surprised. And you shouldn’t be either—this is merely an echo of recent history.
Ever since the Bulldogs made their Cinderella run to the Elite Eight in 1999, people have been waiting for Gonzaga to win the National Championship. It’s much like how the Dallas Cowboys were pronounced “America’s Team” after three championships in the ’90s and are expected to live up to that brand ever since.
Neither has lived up to expectations.
Back in 2004, the Bulldogs entered the dance as a two-seed. Yet they were upset by Nevada by nearly 20 points in the Round of 32. Before the 2005 season, the Zags came into the year ranked No. 7. Still, the team only reached the Sweet Sixteen. Then came eight seasons in which Gonzaga, despite repeated regular-season success, was bounced in the Round of 64 twice and the Round of 32 five times.
One of which came in 2013, the year that the Zags entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed.
Toward the tail end of that regular season, Gonzaga took over as the top team in the nation, showing no signs of dropping a game anytime soon (sound familiar?). Regardless, after one win in the tourney, it was bounced by ninth-seeded Wichita State.
Somehow, fans insisted that this team was on the cusp of greatness. If greatness is another Elite Eight appearance, then, sure, it was. But the Bulldogs’ loss to Duke in the 2015 Regional Finals exposed the truth—no matter how well this team plays in the regular season, its chances to win the national title are just as good as any other mid-major bid.
Gonzaga has the second highest regular-season winning percentage (.825) in college basketball over the past 10 years, right above Duke (.815). But in that time span, the Zags are just 12-10 (.545) in the NCAA Tournament. And historically, are nowhere to be found within the top teams come March.
It’s not misfortune.
Over the past decade, the Bulldogs have captured nine West Coast Conference regular-season titles and seven conference tournament championships. For the most part, Gonzaga’s only challenger has been Saint Mary’s.
And in the past five seasons (including this year’s 12-0 start), the Zags have only dropped seven conference games. Once the Bulldogs get through non-conference play, they effectively cruise to the NCAA Tournament.
The good news is that it makes them look good. Selection Sunday is all about a team’s resume—how the team fares within its conference, its strength of schedule, signature wins, and bad losses. Naturally, when the committee turns to the Zags, they are a fairly attractive mid-major team—hence their high-seeding in recent history.
On the contrary, the lack of competition does little to nothing for a team striving for a national title. According to Lunardi’s in-season projections, only two West Coast Conference teams will earn bids to this year’s March Madness. Therefore, Gonzaga is playing 15-plus games against non-tournament teams leading up to the NCAA Tournament.
But when you look at teams in the Power Five/Big East, they are surrounded by national title contenders. If you ask Lunardi, 38 of them will compete to cut down the nets in March.
The ACC serves as the perfect case study. There may be discrepancies in wins and losses throughout the standings, but every team has the ability to down one another. At this point in the season, you can form a transitive circle showing that any one team is better than the other. That just doesn’t happen in the West Coast Conference. Nor does it happen in the Missouri Valley or the Horizon League.
By the end of the regular season, schools like Duke and Notre Dame will have played 10 games against ranked opponents before playing in the Round of 64. Gonzaga will have played four.
For the Power Five/Big East, NCAA Tournament-caliber opponents are the norm. For Gonzaga, they are a rarity. It’s not the Bulldogs’ fault. It’s merely reality.
Don’t get me wrong, Gonzaga deserves the No. 1 ranking. After all, Few has done an admirable job creating a cohesive group of transfers—three of whom start—and underclassmen. To this day, its undefeated record reminds us of the teams before them that strung together comparable winning streaks.
The 2014 Wichita State team, which recorded a 31-0 regular season, especially comes to mind. But we have to remember, despite snatching a one-seed, those Shockers fell in just the round of 32.
All of these mid-major teams are the same. Some are more talented than others, but they are all restricted to the confines of their conferences. Come March, it’s a free for all. And often, experience is a team’s most valuable asset. For those who don’t have it, they just have to get hot.
Hey, that’s what Butler did in 2010 and 2011.
When March finally does arrive, Gonzaga will take another stab at the Final Four. It may be the No. 1 team in the nation. It may be a one-seed. But in my eyes, it’s just another mid-major.
Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor