By: Jack Henkels
Gonzaga lost last night. At home. To BYU.
“See, I told you guys! They’re a fluke, again! Every year, they’re highly ranked and then they blow it in the tournament! Ugh, they don’t play anyone good!”
Yay, it’s the end of February again, and you know what that means! It’s time for all the “Gonzaga actually isn’t very good” talk to start back up again. And yes – their loss to BYU last night doesn’t necessarily help my argument, but I’m here to tell you this – Gonzaga is really good, every single year. This year is no different.
Before I delve into this year’s Zags team, let’s take a second to disprove the “Gonzaga always blows it in the tournament” narrative.
Since Mark Few took the head coaching reigns in the 1999-2000 season, Gonzaga has reached the NCAA Tournament every year. Think about THAT. 17 tournaments in a row. In this exercise, I’m going to look at their tournament seed, and where they got bounced in the tournament in that particular year. There are three results: exceeded expectations, lost when they were supposed to lose, and were upset as favorites. For example, a one-seed is expected to make the final four. Seeds nine and lower are supposed to lose in the first round. A three seed is expected to advance to the Sweet Sixteen, before losing to the two seed. I hope you catch my drift.
In Mark Few’s 17 seasons, here’s the breakdown:
Exceeded Expectations: 2000, 2001, 2003, 2009, 2011, 2016
Lost When Supposed To Lose: 2006, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015
Upset: 2002, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2013
Would you look at that? In 17 seasons, they’ve been upset only five times. They’ve exceeded expectations more often than they’ve been upset.
This narrative, I think, stems from two particular campaigns: 2006 and 2013. In 2006, as the three seed, The Zags, led by Wooden Award finalist Adam Morrison, blew a 17-point lead and lost to Aaron Afflalo and the seventh-seeded UCLA Bruins. You know, the game where Morrison broke down crying on the court after the game. (It’s an iconic symbol of under-achievement). Then, in 2013, Gonzaga grabbed their first-ever 1 seed. Led by Kevin Pangos and Kelly Olynyk, this was supposed to be the Zags team that proved all the haters wrong. Oh, but then they lost in the second round to the ninth-seeded Wichita State Shockers. That team? Yeah, they were a couple shots away from beating Louisville in the NCCA Title Game. In hindsight, not an awful upset.
Those two years drive this “Gonzaga always blows it” narrative. It’s just not accurate. It’s also false to say that Gonzaga always surprises in the tournament. That also isn’t true. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. They always make the tournament, but once they’re in, they’re a team that generally plays up to its seed.
Ok, so now that you’re up to speed on Gonzaga’s history under Mark Few, it’s time to turn toward this year’s Zags squad. They’ve beaten Iowa State. They topped Florida. They toppled Arizona (albeit, a Wildcat team without Trier). They bested Tennessee. And they’ve thumped St. Mary’s twice. They suffered their first loss last night at home against an underrated BYU team. They’re 29-1.
Going undefeated is really hard. Ask Kentucky. It’s never good to lose, but man, that does get the monkey off their backs. Gonzaga, as a program, has enough pressure to perform in the tournament to the aforementioned (debunked) false narrative. The last thing Mark Few’s team needs is another layer of pressure. They’re not undefeated anymore. They lost last night to BYU. But, you’re going to have a really hard time convincing me that the last five possessions or so of that game last night really warrants a wholesale change of Gonzaga’s perception. 30 games aren’t defined by two minutes. They lost, and they might get knocked off the one-line for it. But is Gonzaga any worse than when I woke up yesterday? I don’t think so. If anything, they played a close game against a team that can shoot you out of the gym. Sounds like great tournament prep to me.
Traditionally, Gonzaga lacks that x-factor. Olynyk was good, but it’s really tough to give the ball to a stretch-5 and ask him to give you buckets down the stretch of a close game. Traditionally, Gonzaga hasn’t had this guy.
Meet University of Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss. In his first year in Spokane, Williams-Goss is averaging 16.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.8 apg while shooting over 50% of the field and 36% from beyond. He should be more in the NPOY conversation than he is. He’s been spectacular. For once, Gonzaga has an athletic bucket-getter at a guard spot. That separates this team from all of Few’s others.
In the front court, Few just keeps throwing big bodies out there. Przemek Karnowski is the most notable Zag big, but Zach Collins and Johnathan Williams are both huge bodies off the bench that can eat minutes, grab boards, and even get buckets.
A lot of teams rely too much on the three-point shot – always a dangerous proposition in a one-and-done elimination tournament. The Zags shoot 38% as a team from beyond, and save Karnowski, everyone in the rotation has a capable stroke from downtown. Notably, wings Silas Melson and Josh Perkins each shoot higher than 40% from behind the arc. They can just beat you in so, so many ways.
I’m not sitting here on my high horse telling you to pick Gonzaga to win it all. They’re not the odds-on favorite, and there really isn’t one this year. (It’s going to be a really, really fun March). But, I am telling you that picking against Gonzaga because of their “tournament history” is really, really silly for two reasons:
- That “history” is false.
- This Gonzaga team is deeper AND more dynamic than any of their past teams.
Pick against Gonzaga because you think another team is better. Pick against Gonzaga because you like the other team’s mascot more. Pick against Gonzaga because you hate me and you want to see me be wrong. But, don’t pick against Gonzaga because of this “history” nonsense.