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The Major Mid-Major

Gonzaga’s developed an undeserved reputation as an NCAA tournament lightweight, but this season, it’s better than ever — and better than everyone else

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Once upon a time, Gonzaga was college basketball’s Cinderella. It’s not “once upon a time” anymore, though. Queen Cinderella has been in charge for over a decade — Prince Charming died without male heirs — and the populace is convinced her lack of blue blood makes her an ineffective leader.

The weak West Coast Conference, the conventional wisdom goes, inflates Gonzaga’s record and reputation, leading to undeservedly high seeds, while leaving the team unprepared for the rigors of a tourney run through a slew of power-conference foes. As our own Mark Titus wrote last month, Gonzaga hasn’t actually performed that poorly in the tournament, but a stretch of five straight second-round exits, including one as a 1-seed, has given it the reputation of a fish that looks big only because it’s in such a tiny pond.

But this season’s Gonzaga team is different — and better — than past Gonzaga teams. It’s made up of better players; it’s played better teams and yet has lost fewer games and won by more.

Gonzaga has been great on offense before. Prior to this season, it’s ranked in the top five of adjusted offensive efficiency four times since Ken Pomeroy began keeping track in 2002. The Bulldogs had never ranked in the top 15 in adjusted defense. This makes sense when you think about the type of players who’ve led the team — Adam Morrison, Kelly Olynyk, Kyle Wiltjer, guys who could do nearly anything with the ball but might not be interested in stopping you if you tried running past them with it.

This season’s team is also great on offense — fourth in adjusted offense. It’s also great on defense — third in that stat. The “adjusted” takes into account that most of Gonzaga’s opponents aren’t that good. Since Pomeroy started keeping track, only five teams have ever managed to be top-five in both categories over the course of a whole season: 2002 Duke, 2004 Duke, 2008 Kansas, 2010 Duke, and 2016 Villanova. The last three were NCAA champions.

Perhaps you don’t like advanced stats, so let’s translate: Gonzaga is kicking the living crap out of everybody it plays. No previous Gonzaga team has gotten to the tournament without losing at least two games. This team is undefeated and has beaten the four teams remaining on its schedule by an average of 20.3 points.

No matter the competition, going undefeated in the regular season is rare — just 2004 St. Joseph’s, 2014 Wichita State, and 2015 Kentucky have done it this millennium. Of course, one of those comparisons might be a reason not to trust the Zags: That Wichita State team flopped in the NCAA tournament, earning a 1-seed before losing to eighth-seeded Kentucky.

Except, this Gonzaga team is preposterously dominant in a way Wichita State never was. That year the Shockers had some close calls in MVC play: They needed overtime to beat Missouri State and had two other wins by single digits. The 2013 Gonzaga team that went 16–0 in WCC play had five games decided by 10 or fewer points, including a two-point win over San Diego. The 2015 Gonzaga team that went 35–3 and made the Elite Eight won 12 of 18 conference games by 20 points or fewer, with a two-point win over Pepperdine and a loss to BYU. Meanwhile, this Gonzaga team is winning its average conference game by 26 points, with just five games decided by 20 or fewer and none by fewer than 10.

This comes in spite of Gonzaga playing the best non-Gonzaga WCC team of all time. Saint Mary’s is ranked in the top 20 on KenPom for the first time. (It was ranked 21st in 2013.) By comparison, the best MVC team in the season Wichita State went undefeated was Northern Iowa, ranked 94th on KenPom. The Gaels are 22–3, and have put some horrific beatdowns on WCC opponents — they beat Portland 74–33 and San Diego 71–27 — but Gonzaga has beaten them twice by double digits.

Gonzaga is also beating good teams from top conferences. Its five matchups against major conference teams look like what we’d expect from a great major conference team. The Bulldogs have three wins against likely tourney teams, Florida, Arizona, and Iowa State, plus a fourth win over a bubble team in Tennessee. And when they played a bad major conference team, Washington, they eviscerated it by 27.

There’s a reason Gonzaga plays like a major conference team: It practically is one. True, its most distinctive player, Przemek Karnowski, is Peak Gonzaga: A 7-foot-1, 300-pound, heavily bearded Polish passer. But the team’s best player, point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, is a former five-star recruit who transferred from Washington. Power forward Johnathan Williams is a former four-star recruit who transferred from Mizzou. The team’s best shooter, Jordan Mathews, is a transfer from Cal. And he isn’t shooting as well as he did at Cal, so there’s even some room for improvement.

In terms of program prominence, Gonzaga belongs in a major conference. Its players are from major stock; its dominance indicates it’s as good as major conference teams — and so do its actual games against major conference teams. There’s nothing left for the Bulldogs to prove in the WCC. When they’re bad, they go 15–3; when they’re great, they go 16–0. And achieving ridiculous records year after year makes it difficult for many to gauge when they’re merely good and when they’re great, like they are this season.

Personally, I like Gonzaga right where it is. The average college basketball fan might not appreciate Gonzaga beating Pepperdine by 47, but I think the presence of a basketball behemoth in the WCC highlights the outrageous development of the program. I turned on the game when I saw Saint Mary’s was up 58–14 on Portland. It’s fascinating to see what it looks like when one of the best teams in a sport faces off against teams that aren’t nearly on the same level — and it makes us remember that this is where Gonzaga came from.

We once celebrated Gonzaga’s slipper still fitting. Maybe you don’t believe in Gonzaga — but you know that it’d crush any crystal you tried slipping on its feet.