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Gonzaga Is A Major Team In A Minor Conference

Going into conference tournament week, the Gonzaga Bulldogs were no lock to extend their string of consecutive NCAA tourney berths to 18 years. To maintain the streak, the Zags probably needed to run the West Coast Conference tournament table, since an at-large bid was unlikely with seven losses on their résumé. The automatic-bid route was how Gonzaga qualified for 13 of the previous 17 NCAA tournaments, but it wasn’t even the conference favorite this year.

The streak, tied for seventh-longest in history, seemed to be in jeopardy.

Three victories later, the Bulldogs are West Coast champs and tournament-bound. Since its streak began in 1998-99, Gonzaga has been the best non-power-conference school, going by cumulative adjusted net efficiency:1

ADJUSTED NET EFFICIENCY
SCHOOL PRIMARY CONFERENCE WINS LOSSES TEAM OTHER CONF. MEMBERS DIFF
1 Gonzaga West Coast 484 117 +17.57 -0.34 +17.92
2 Memphis Conference USA 442 172 +14.84 +4.34 +10.50
3 Xavier Atlantic 10 355 145 +14.64 +4.11 +10.54
4 Butler Horizon League 356 136 +12.83 +0.34 +12.49
5 BYU Mountain West 395 185 +12.07 +4.48 +7.59
6 Temple Atlantic 10 373 222 +11.99 +4.56 +7.44
7 Creighton Missouri Valley 353 147 +11.62 +4.02 +7.60
8 Wichita St. Missouri Valley 373 208 +10.39 +3.72 +6.67
9 Dayton Atlantic 10 384 203 +9.54 +4.72 +4.82
10 UNLV Mountain West 371 201 +9.16 +5.34 +3.82
Best non-power-conference programs of the last 18 seasons

SourceS: Ken Pomeroy, Daniel Myers

(Note that I’m defining “power conferences” as the ACC, Big 8/Big 12, Big East — but not its offshoot the AAC, which has had the power ratings and total NCAA bids of a mid-major thus far — Big Ten, Pac-10/Pac-12 and SEC. I also filtered out teams like Cincinnati and Louisville that played fewer than three-quarters of their games in a non-power conference.)

As you might expect, Gonzaga towers over the other mid-majors. But even more striking might be the heights to which it’s risen over its fellow WCC members; as the Bulldogs were putting together the 12th-best rating of any program in the nation, the average non-Gonzaga WCC team has been worse than the average Division I school over the same span. Since ’99, the Bulldogs have dominated their conference more than any other mid-major; second place (Butler) isn’t especially close.

The same holds true if we expand beyond our admittedly selective endpoints and look at more than Gonzaga’s streak. Here are the top non-power teams of the 64-team NCAA Tournament era (since 1984-85):

ADJUSTED NET EFFICIENCY
SCHOOL PRIMARY CONFERENCE WINS LOSSES TEAM OTHER CONF. MEMBERS DIFF
1 Memphis Conference USA 733 324 +13.61 +5.96 +7.65
2 Temple Atlantic 10 689 351 +13.37 +4.18 +9.19
3 Xavier Atlantic 10 640 267 +12.45 +2.95 +9.50
4 Gonzaga West Coast 689 279 +11.64 -0.47 +12.11
5 UNLV Mountain West 715 310 +11.33 +3.60 +7.74
6 Utah Western Athletic 531 289 +10.37 +4.11 +6.26
7 BYU Western Athletic 648 362 +9.52 +3.78 +5.74
8 New Mexico Mountain West 658 357 +8.47 +4.30 +4.17
9 Tulsa Missouri Valley 631 381 +8.19 +2.23 +5.96
10 Butler Midwestern Collegiate 554 323 +7.69 +0.48 +7.21
Best non-power-conference programs of the 64-team bracket era

SourceS: Ken Pomeroy, Daniel Myers

Over this extended time period, the Zags are surpassed by Memphis, Temple and Xavier overall but remain the most dominant relative to the rest of their conference. On the one hand, this can be seen as Gonzaga beating the tar out of weak conference opponents. On the other, over more than three decades now, no mid-major has beaten the tar out of its conference the way Gonzaga has beaten down the WCC.

Footnotes

  1. Point margin per 100 possessions, adjusted for strength of schedule.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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