Gonzaga: What Gives?Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 25th, 2014
Gonzaga has been playing Division I basketball for 57 years. In that time, they’ve made 17 NCAA Tournaments. Sixteen of those 17 appearances have occurred consecutively over the last 16 years. And Mark Few has been the head coach for 15 of those. Just to be clear: Mark Few has taken Gonzaga to 15 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, a streak which accounts for 15 of the program’s 17 tournament appearances in school history. After the Zags’ big Elite Eight breakout surprise in 1999, Few entered as head coach and took the Bulldogs to the Sweet Sixteen in the following two seasons, marking three straight appearances in the Tournament’s second weekend for the burgeoning program. In the 12 years since the run from 1999-2001, they’ve made it to just two more Sweet Sixteens, losing in heartbreaking fashion to eventual national runner-up UCLA in 2006, then getting blown out by eventual national champion North Carolina in 2009.
Mixed in there, however, are more underachievements based on seed line than overachievements: a 2002 first round loss as a #6 seed; a 2004 round of 32 loss as a #2 seed; a 2005 round of 32 loss as a #3 seed; and most famously, last year’s round of 32 loss as a #1 seed. Only twice has Gonzaga outperformed its seed in the NCAA Tournament since 2001 — that took place in 2003 where they won one game as a #9 seed (note that the Zags also then gave #1 seed Arizona one hell of a game in the next round), and in 2011 when they won a single game as a #11 seed.
So, all of this history sets up as merely as preamble to this question: What gives, Gonzaga? The Bulldogs have been a #1 seed, a #2 seed, a #3 seed twice, and a #4 seed once. They rest of the time they’ve been seeded in the range between #6 and #11, no big deal for a program built on the foundation of a Cinderella slipper, right? So why haven’t the Zags been able to have much more success in March? Well, let’s start with limited talent. You know the story: You’ve got to have NBA talent to succeed in March, right? Since 2003, there have been a grand total of six Bulldogs who have been drafted into the NBA. Here’s the list: Dan Dickau (2002, #28 pick), Ronny Turiaf (2005, #37 pick), Adam Morrison (2006, #3 pick), Austin Daye (2009, #15 pick), Robert Sacre (2012, #60 pick) and Kelly Olynyk (2013, #13 pick). Of those guys, the jury is still out on Sacre and Olynyk (more the latter than the former), but the rest of them? The most productive NBA career belongs to Turiaf, who has been in the league for nine seasons now and whose best season produced averages of 21 minutes and 5.9 points per game – so a solid NBA vet, but by no means a game-changer.
And that story, like the story of a lot of teams in smaller conferences (hello, Mountain West!) is probably the main reason why the Zags haven’t lived up to their seedings in the NCAA Tournament. Go back through the list of teams that have knocked Gonzaga out of the NCAA Tournament, and every team except Wyoming in 2002 and Texas Tech in 2005 (coached by Bob Knight) had at least one pro on its roster. One other theory to float for Gonzaga’s lack of NCAA Tournament success: some bad luck in a small sample size. In 2003, they had multiple chances to beat Arizona at the end of each of the three periods in that epic and came up short each time. In 2006 against UCLA, well, just, yikes – I’m still not sure how that happened. In 2008 and in 2011, their seasons ended at the hands of two of the deadliest gunners in recent college basketball history: Stephen Curry (40 points against the Zags in 2008) and Jimmer Fredette (34 points in 2011). Last year, there was a game Wichita State team scoring 23 points in nine possessions to knock off Gonzaga. In 2009, they actually played really well against North Carolina, only to have the Tar Heels hit 11 of their 19 threes against them while the Zags hit just one of their 10 attempts from deep in the second half.
In fact, poor three-point shooting has done in the Zags on more than one occasion. In 2002, after taking a four-point lead into the half, Gonzaga shot just 2-of-13 from three in the second half en route to losing to Wyoming. In 2004, it was a 3-of-22 performance from deep that helped do them in against Nevada. In 2004, they were 2-of-13 from three in a two-point loss. All told, the Zags lost a handful of those season-ending games over the course of 2002-14 on the roll of a die or a flip of a coin. Sometimes we seem to forget these things at the end of the year, but there is a good amount of luck that can factor into a team’s fortunes one way or the other. None of which is to say that the Zags are any better or worse than their record over those last 13 seasons. But for a Gonzaga fan who might be questioning the state of the program; or for an outsider looking in and second-guessing the phenomenal job that Mark Few has done in Spokane; or for just anybody wanting to make sense of Gonzaga basketball; there is more than just a run of five straight losses in the round of 32 to explain this program.