20 Questions: Why Can’t Gonzaga Make Another Serious Run in the NCAA Tournament?Posted by nvr1983 on November 9th, 2011
Question: Why Can’t Gonzaga Make Another Serious Run in the NCAA Tournament?
It seems like a strange question to ask. Every year ESPN hypes up Gonzaga as a Cinderella team, but a strange thing happened between 1999 and 2011–the Bulldogs failed to advance past the Sweet Sixteen. While the school has had its share of stars in the intervening 12 seasons (Adam Morrison being the most notable) much of its NCAA Tournament reputation is built on the work of Casey Cavalry from the 1999 NCAA Tournament. It is a fact that lost is lost on many casual college basketball fans and college basketball analysts, who at best choose to ignore it to help build a compelling narrative. Much like Duke has been made out to be the symbol of all things right in college basketball by certain media outlets there has been a tendency by many in the media to paint Gonzaga as the perennial Cinderella that always makes a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. That may make for a nice story line and the video of Cavalry flying in to tip in the game-winner against Florida makes for a nice clip (as well as creating the name for the best Gonzaga blog out there), but recently they have been surpassed by Butler as the mid-major du jour. The question is what happened to Gonzaga and what can it do to get back to the Elite Eight and beyond?
To start off, we should point out that Gonzaga has been far from a total failure during the Mark Few era, which also happens to coincide with the stretch where Gonzaga has been unable to get beyond the Sweet Sixteen, a fact that is probably not lost on Gonzaga fans. During his 12 seasons as head coach at Gonzaga, Few has compiled a 315-83 record (79.1%, which is 6th all-time in Division I and 2nd among active coaches trailing just Roy Williams) while winning the West Coast Conference regular season title 11 consecutive years and making the NCAA Tournament every season he has been a head coach. However, that success has not translated to the NCAA Tournament where after two consecutive trips to the Sweet Sixteen in his first two years as head coach Few has only been able to guide the Bulldogs out of the opening weekend two out of ten seasons including three years where they lost in the opening round.
There are several potential explanations for Gonzaga’s relative lack of success. The first, and most obvious, is that it is really hard to get to the Elite Eight. Take a look at the six veteran coaches who are widely considered to be the best in the business: Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, and Tom Izzo. Even Krzyzewski, who may go down as the greatest college basketball coach ever not named Wooden, has only made it past the Sweet Sixteen three times during the same period of time. Of course, two of those trips resulted in national championships, but that is why he has American Express commercials. Williams has actually made it a shocking seven times in 12 years, Calipari has made it five times in 11 seasons (he was in the NBA during the 2000 NCAA Tournament), Pitino has made it twice in 11 seasons (he was in the NBA during the 2000 and 2001 NCAA Tournament), Calhoun has made it four times, and Izzo has made it six times. So while it is true to a degree that it isn’t easy to be one of the last eight teams standing, the top programs tend to make it there on a not infrequent basis and even a team like Xavier, which doesn’t come from a power conference, has managed to make the Elite Eight twice since 2004.
The next issue that people will point to is sub-par recruiting classes and it is true to an extent that Gonzaga does not get the same caliber of recruit that schools with the previously mentioned coaches do, but that is ignoring the fact that many other non-traditional powers have managed to make deep runs without the recruiting talent that Gonzaga has had. We looked back through the Scout.com rankings for Gonzaga’s recruits since 2002 and they have a very respectable haul for a West Coast Conference team: six 4-stars and nineteen 3-stars. While Calipari and Krzyzewski might be disappointed by those totals any coach outside of the BCS and many within the BCS would be quite content to build their program around those recruits. Of course, sometimes those 4-star recruits don’t pan out like Larry Gurganious and sometimes those 3-star recruits turn out to be much better than expected like Adam Morrison. Overall, most of the 4-stars that Few picked up and quite a few of the 3-stars turned out to be very good college players. So blaming the recruiting is a little short-sighted.
The one issue that has been mentioned as a significant factor and that we tend to agree with is that the significant attrition rate that Mark Few has seen in the past few years has created a major problem with the continuity of the program. When Demetri Goodson left the program this year to play football at Baylor it made national news, but it was actually the seventh departure from the program in recent years. While many of the players who left were not big names (none near the level of Goodson in college) they had only played at the school for a short time and could have very easily developed into solid players at the school. They probably would not have become superstars since most of those declare themselves to be ones relatively early, but they could have evolved into solid role players that could have filled gaps in the team that tended to emerge against the stronger competition that they faced in the NCAA Tournament. It is unclear why the team has seen so many players leave the program. There has been speculation that Few has been too hard on some players while others have said that they have simply recruited a few of the wrong types of players for the program. Whatever the case it is unlikely that a program like Gonzaga, which however much the media wants to hype it will never be a prime destination for the truly elite 5-star recruits, will be able to be a consistent title contender unless it can keep the recruits that it does get in the program for three or four years. The recruiting powerhouses are able to deal with defections and early entries, but the schools that aren’t in that class (and there are probably only a handful that are) simply cannot make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament unless they have that consistency.
This probably isn’t year for Gonzaga to make a run in the NCAA Tournament given the depth of returnees on top caliber teams and Gonzaga’s relative weakness. It may well be that Gonzaga never makes another run to the Elite Eight and they could still be a fairly solid, consistent mid-major program, but until they do we should probably hold off on the talk of them being a perennial Cinderella (a ridiculous concept to begin with) much less one of the premier programs in the country. That is not intended to be a criticism of the program. Instead it is a reflection of the reality of what the program is right now–one of the better mid-level programs in the country, but not one of the truly elite programs.