On This Season’s Gonzaga Dilemma

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 9th, 2015

Two years ago, the debate raged. Did Gonzaga, the #1 team in both polls on Selection Sunday, really deserve a #1 seed? It was a question rarely faced by teams towering over the polls at such a late juncture, but the Zags’ 31-2 record didn’t impress everyone. Critics brought up the weak WCC. They pointed out an unflattering RPI ranking of #8. More anecdotally, they looked up and down the Gonzaga roster and asked — other than Kelly Olynyk — where all the pros were. The Zags claim to a #1 seed was as energized a debate as any on Selection Sunday in March 2013.

Mark Few, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Are Steering Gonzaga Towards Yet Another Dominant Regular Season Finish. Will The Zag's Disappointing 2013 NCAA Tournament Showing Impact This Team's Spot Within The Bracket?

Mark Few, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Are Steering Gonzaga Towards Yet Another Dominant Regular Season Finish. Will The Zags’ Disappointing 2013 NCAA Tournament Showing Impact This Team’s Placement Within The Bracket?

That story’s ending shouldn’t have escaped memory yet (Cliff Notes: #1 seed granted, but Sweet Sixteen appearance sold separately) and it may have more damage to deliver the Bulldogs. This season boasts an equally dominant Gonzaga outfit and a similarly helpless WCC, which puts Mark Few’s team on a crash course for a familiar Selection Sunday predicament. After easily knocking off San Francisco on Thursday night, the 15-1 Bulldogs look as poised as ever to rip through a soft WCC and reach Selection Sunday with just one loss, an overtime defeat at Arizona (who is kind of good!). Early results indicate competition for the four #1 seeds is likely to be even fiercer this season than it was two years ago, but this Gonzaga group also looks to be stronger as well. Dominoes in the race for a #1 seed will be falling from now until March — in both Spokane and elsewhere — but round two of the great Gonzaga debate is coming. There’s no reason not to begin considering the question now: Will the kings of the WCC deserve to be on the bracket’s top line?

If Kentucky wants to actually go 40-0, the Wildcats should look into WCC membership. The win percentages (via KenPom) attached to the dates remaining on Gonzaga’s regular season schedule would be the envy of perfection-seekers far and wide. The Zags have an 89 percent chance or better in each of their next twelve outings. Their last three regular season dates include their two toughest remaining games (at Saint Mary’s and home vs. BYU), but Gonzaga still owns a win expectation of 78 percent or better in all three. The WCC Tourney will bring three more games, but if predictions hold firm and Gonzaga-BYU-Saint Mary’s finish 1-2-3, the Zags will have just one more game against the Cougars or Gaels. We probably haven’t reached the tipping point where an unbeaten conference season has become likely (and KenPom would agree), but one loss may not change the year-end discussion too much. Provided the Zags handle business in Vegas and take the WCC Tournament crown, a 17-1 conference season would leave them at 32-2 and, presumably, very much in the discussion for a #1 seed.

The time for resume-building is far from over. There’s clearly no way to offer a final verdict on the worthiness of Gonzaga’s candidacy, just like there is no ruling available for Kentucky, Duke, Virginia, Wisconsin, Louisville and every other possible #1 seed contender out there. What makes this discussion relevant right now is that beyond many, many losses for the aforementioned quintet of teams (good luck), there is no way for Gonzaga to avoid the debate that surrounded them in 2013. The Bulldogs could steamroll their way through the WCC and finish the year having suffered just a single loss (in 34 tries) to a team poised for a #1 seed themselves, and yet still be far from a lock for the top line. Critics want to see the best teams consistently beat good teams. Unfortunately for the Zags, the WCC doesn’t afford them that opportunity.

Equally disadvantageous for this year’s Gonzaga Bulldogs is the fate of that 2013 team. Year in and year out the selection committee pledges to throw program names out the window and evaluate every season in isolation, but the consequences of that team’s postseason failure are unavoidable. The dilemma was a unique one; you don’t see a mid-major team with a resume full of mediocre wins vying for a #1 seed very often. If and when it happens — and with the same exact program — don’t be naïve enough to believe that past history can be shunned from recall. The decision to make the Zags a #1 seed this season is unlikely to be a slam-dunk, but if the decision is anything short of unquestionable, the selection committee, whether they say so or not, has a supporting piece of evidence compelling enough to quiet even the most fervent of apologists. It’s only January 9, but Bulldogs’ fans may want to brace themselves for a potentially harsh Selection Sunday reality: Right or wrong, 33-1 may not be good enough this time around.

BHayes (244 Posts)

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3 responses to “On This Season’s Gonzaga Dilemma”

  1. Mark W says:

    Gonzaga plays in a conference that makes it difficult to assess their true strength. When that is true, the team must prove itself worthy of a high seed. Part of what earned the respect for Gonzaga was their history of winning in the tournament when they were a poor seed. It was that history of winning in the tournament in what were upsets by seed number that gained them better and better placement in the tournament. If it is reasonable to give a team better placement based on their history of winning, then it is just as reasonable to give a team worse placement based upon their history of losing. Just imagine the future consequences if Gonzaga is granted the 1 seed and has another early exit.

  2. Tommy says:

    The PERCEPTION is that the WCC is helpless, while the reality is that it is one of the more vastly improved conferences over the past 2 seasons. Last year the conference had no team outside of the KenPom top 185 for the first time EVER. The middle of the pack with Portland, San Diego, Pepperdine, Santa Clara, and San Francisco looks to more formidable enough once again this season and it would be a mistake to just assume that since “it’s the WCC” one team can just streamroll through everyone (although if it’s going to happen, this is the Gonzaga team to do it). The WCC is currently the 2nd highest ranked non-major conference behind only the A-10 which makes going on the road to win a conference game more difficult than people generally give them credit for. If the Zags go 33-1 then is totally safe to think that based just off the precedent of Wichita St last year that a 1 seed is likely. Ultimately, the seeding doesn’t matter so much as the location so a 1 or 2 seed really makes no difference as long as they are sent out West, with Arizona likely joining them.

  3. Jim M. says:

    At 33-1, just put Gonzaga down for a 2-seed, and they’ll be happy as long as it’s not the weakest 2 in Kentucky’s region. All those other teams they are capable of beating on any given night, so they’ll be happy to take their chances. Maybe Kentucky can get bushwhacked before the championship game.

    The problem until now has been that the first midge hatch on Rockyford Creek occurs on the second weekend of the tournament in March and Fewie loses his concentration on basketball 8 days before that occurs. If your head coach has his mind elsewhere, upsets happen. But he’s getting old enough that a little arthritis here and there should convince him to postpone the first fly-fishing trip of the season for the warmer weather coming around April 10th. Wooden won his first in his 16th season, and this is Few’s 16th season, so why not now?

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