After Rocky Season, WCC Champs Gonzaga Back in Familiar Role of UnderdogPosted by Bennet Hayes on March 14th, 2014
After securing a sweep of the WCC regular season and tournament titles on Tuesday night, Gonzaga should land somewhere on the #7-#10 seed lines on Selection Sunday. Obviously, that means there is a decent chance that the Zags will be a favorite in the round of 64, but a run deep into March is widely considered unlikely for Mark Few’s team this season. The “soft” label that has lingered around the program for years is still there, and the stench of a second-round loss as a #1 seed last season hasn’t fully dissipated, either. Critics also like to point to a paper resume that is devoid of marquee wins, which, to a large extent, is fair. The Gonzaga profile was so toothless that it kept the Zags out of NCAA Tournament lock territory all the way into the WCC Tournament, despite a 25-win regular season. Not exactly the typical Gonzaga treatment, eh? However, so-so profile and lack of national believers notwithstanding, Gonzaga may actually be well-positioned for an NCAA Tournament push, albeit from a lower seed line. Perhaps, after all these years, the slipper still fits.
At the time, Gonzaga’s second round loss to Wichita State a year ago seemed to validate all the conversation about the Zags being overrated. Nevermind that Wichita State ended up rolling through the entire West region on the way to the Final Four, or that Gonzaga extended its streak of years with a Tournament win to five (Kansas and Syracuse are the only other programs with wins in each of the last five Dances). Suddenly Gonzaga was a chronic March failure that beat up on a weak mid-major conference every season before getting exposed by “real” teams. After a season in the national spotlight, the timing of the upset loss to the Shockers was less than ideal, but the overreaction to it was extreme. One loss does not define a program – particularly one with a lengthy, consistent track record like Gonzaga.
Last year, Gonzaga’s defense was solid, but still lagged well behind the Zags’ uber-efficient offensive attack. Nothing out of the ordinary in this regard – in each of the last 11 seasons, Gonzaga’s offensive efficiency has ranked both among the nation’s top 50 and ahead of itsdefensive efficiency. This consistent offense/defense hierarchy has enabled skeptics to highlight the inferior defensive effort put forth by Few’s squad in years past, but the script has been flipped this season. Gonzaga is 13th nationally in defensive efficiency (and 50th on offense), which is their best mark in the metric under Few. Team size and overall toughness on the glass can be questioned with these Zags, but for once, any criticism about the defensive capability of a Gonzaga team should be quickly refuted. It’s an interesting shift in philosophy, and one that could lead to even more March success.
The draw matters for every team in the NCAA Tournament, and Gonzaga will be no different. Find a poor early match-up – perhaps one against a team that aggressively attacks the glass – and the Zags’ NCAA Tournament win streak could easily end in 2014. But for Mark Few and his team, there has to be some refreshment gained by entering the Dance under the radar, as fellow mid-majors Wichita State, and (to some extent) San Diego State have absorbed the spotlight typically reserved for the Bulldogs. They actually feel a little bit like the Wichita State team that ended their season a year ago, and perhaps even bring to mind past Zag teams from the early 2000s. We may know them a little better now than we did then, but this should still sound scary: Gonzaga is an underdog again.