Gonzaga finally lost this weekend, sending the team’s quest for an undefeated season down the drain. The Bulldogs were more than 20-point favorites over BYU at home but were outscored 44-30 in the second half by the Cougars. Mark Few’s team had cruised for weeks and it looked like he finally had the team to break the school’s long streak of disappointing NCAA Tournament finishes. After their awful loss to BYU, it looks like the Bulldogs are set to leave us unsatisfied once again.
Few is in his 18th season at Gonzaga and his record of regular season success there has been remarkable. The Bulldogs have taken home 16 West Coast Conference championships (including this season’s title) and 13 WCC tournament titles. Few has also been the conference’s coach of the year 11 times. That said, the Bulldogs have yet to truly experience the breakout run in the tournament that we’ve all been expecting for years.
Few’s teams have reached the NCAA Tournament in all 17 of his previous seasons at the school (this year will make him a perfect 18 for 18). In those 17 appearances the Zags have reached the Sweet Sixteen just five times and the Elite Eight once. Few has never put a team in the Final Four despite being a top four seed in a region six times. No matter how you slice it, that means he’s underachieving on the biggest stage.
Despite the loss on Saturday, Gonzaga still ranks No. 1 in KenPom’s Adjusted Efficiency Margin. But when you look deeper into the numbers you see that the Bulldogs might be a paper tiger.
Gonzaga’s strength of schedule ranks 132nd, while it’s non-conference SOS is 140th. The Zags rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, but given who they’ve played that’s not really surprising. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, Gonzaga beat No. 12 Florida (23-6), No. 24 Iowa State (19-9) and No. 7 Arizona (26-4). But they haven’t had a significant win since topping the Wildcats on December 3. No, I don’t consider St. Mary’s a “significant” win since the 26-3 Gaels haven’t beaten anyone. In fact, the only team with a weaker SOS than Gonzaga in KenPom’s top 45 is…St. Mary’s.
Gonzaga is currently 12th in the RPI rankings, and I know RPI is imperfect, but that should pretty much disqualify the Bulldogs for a No. 1 seed unless something crazy happens. The Bulldogs have the 104th ranked SOS according to the RPI’s metrics and their non-conference SOS ranks just 31st. Their conference SOS is a dismal 145th. I’m sorry, but Gonzaga’s league is far too weak to justify a top seed over schools like Villanova, Kansas, Louisville, North Carolina, Oregon, Baylor, Kentucky, etc. It may not be the team’s fault that the WCC is terrible, but that’s just the way things go sometimes.
My concern with Gonzaga this season is that I’m not sure it’s a better team than last year’s version that went 28-8 and fell in the Sweet 16 to Syracuse. Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss has been a revelation, Przemek Karnowski has improved tremendously, while freshman center Zach Collins could be turning into a star. Cal transfer Jordan Mathews has been solid and Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams has been a really good versatile forward. That said, last year’s squad, led by double-double machine Domantas Sabonis, Kyle Wiltjer (20.4 points, 6.3 rebounds per game) and Eric McClellan, felt far more dangerous.
Last year, Wiltjer and Sabonis created matchup problems for any team facing the Bulldogs, whereas this season’s roster is far more conventional. Late in a tight game, Williams-Goss or Karnowski will be relied upon to score key points, and I’m not sure either presents real problems for high-level opponents.
We’ve all been waiting for the Gonzaga breakthrough to happen for years. It seems like every season we talk up Few’s team and then they get bounced from the tournament by a major-conference opponent. Last year it was Syracuse, in 2015 it was Duke, in 2014 Arizona did it, Ohio State was the perpetrator in 2012, Syracuse knocked them out in 2010, North Carolina did it in 2009 and so on. It’s clear the Bulldogs are not prepared for the big-time teams they’ll face in the NCAA Tournament and that’s all because of their weak conference slate.
While it’s easy to like Few and root for his Gonzaga teams, it appears we’re getting set up for disappointment once again.