What To Do With Gonzaga?

The prevailing school of thought with Gonzaga seems to be that they perennially suffer come tournament time due to a lack of seasoning. So the argument goes, Gonzaga piles up a lofty record year after year on the strength of wins over its overmatched WCC foes, and by the time the tourney rolls around, the Bulldogs simply don’t have the experience when faced with more difficult power conference opponents. They’re simply riding the heels of an old “cinderella” label and haven’t been able to live up to their billing since they have shed that label and reached more prominence nationally.

Historically speaking, this school of thought has proven to be true. But first, a quick fact that is often overlooked: Twenty years ago, a funny-sounding school named Gonzaga was ‎the type that could be used as a punchline in a joke about schedule weakness. (It actually was used as exactly that in the 1992 film “Final Shot: The Hank Gathers Story”, where Gathers and teammate Bo Kimble express dismay at the quality of their opponents and complain, “Look at this! We’re playing Gonzaga. Gonzaga!”)

Then, in 1995, a funny thing happened: Gonzaga made the NCAA Tournament for the first time. In 1999, when ‎Mark Few became the head coach, they made the tourney again, and this time they made an improbable run to the Regional Final as a 10 seed, falling just short of the Final Four as they lost there to eventual National Champion UConn 67-62.

They haven’t missed the tournament since. But they also haven’t advanced to another Elite Eight either.

The question at hand then should be whether or not this is the best team Gonzaga has ever had, as it seems that it would have to be in order to justify giving these Bulldogs a shot to reverse the trend.

Attempting to quantify ‎this exactly gets tricky, as we don’t have efficiency data before 2002.

After the 1999 Elite Eight team, Gonzaga returned to two consecutive Sweet 16s in 2000 and 2001 as 10 and 12 seeds respectively. It’s quite remarkable that Gonzaga advanced to three straight Sweet 16s over that time period with three consecutive double digit seeds. I can’t find another example of that happening at any time in tournament history. Still, based upon where Gonzaga was seeded those years, it is safe to say that the expectations for this year’s team should be much higher.

Here’s a look at the Gonzaga squads that compare favorably to this years’s since the development of efficiency ratings:

‎2004: #2 Seed, 0.9244 Pyth, #5 AdjO/ #36 AdjD

Tier 2, Lost 2nd Round (Adam Morrison/ Ronny Turiaf team)

2005: #3 Seed, 0.8552 Pyth, #8 AdjO/ #132 AdjD

No Tier, Lost 2nd Round (Adam Morrison/ Ronny Turiaf team)

2006: #3 Seed, 0.8220 Pyth‎, #1 AdjO, #186 AdjD

Tier 3, Lost 2nd Round (Adam Morrison/ J.P. Batista team)

2009: #4 Seed, 0.9123 Pyth, #9 AdjO, #37 AdjD

Tier 2, Lost Sweet 16 (Josh Heytvelt team)

2013: #1 Seed, 0.9408 Pyth, #2 AdjO, #37 AdjD

Tier 2, Lost 2nd Round (Kelly Olynyk team)

2015: #2 Seed, 0.9440 Pyth, #6 AdjO, #20 AdjD

Tier 1, ???

‎The highest efficiency teams they’ve had are clearly the 2004, 2013 and 2015 teams. These teams all received seeds of 1 or 2, but with the previous teams both losing in the second round, is it appropriate to expect the same of this year’s team? Are there any differences?

I see a couple of big ones. First of all, while this isn’t Gonzaga’s highest seeded team ever (that was 2013), it is actually the best team that the school has ever assembled in terms of efficiency. But more importantly for my purposes, this is the ONLY team they’ve ever assembled to obtain a Tier 1 Final Four probability status. This is because the 2015 team is the only team to ever show efficiency rankings in the Top 25 on both sides of the ball with a Top 10 emphasis on at least one side of the ball. And, as explained in far more detail a couple of posts below, balance is a key element of a Final Four-caliber team, with 50% of historical Final Four teams meeting the Tier 1 criteria.

Conclusion: There are plenty of good reasons to oppose Gonzaga as the South regional champion. However, if you are hanging onto the “Gonzaga always underachieves in the ‎tournament” angle, know this: The 2015 edition of Gonzaga is indisputably the best team in the school’s history. So the comparison that you believe you are making is akin to comparing apples and oranges. And don’t think for a second that this year’s team isn’t aware of this underachiever stigma. Equipped with a superior arsenal relative to the teams that earned that reputation in the first place, they’ll be eager to put it to rest.

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