Mark Few’s Gonzaga hasn’t been a proper Cinderella for more than a decade now, having outgrown the designation some time ago. This season’s squad, however, entered the 2016 NCAA Tournament in an unfamiliar position — an 11-seed. Matched up with the streaking 6-seed Seton Hall, which had just won the Big East Tournament, Gonzaga was predicted by many to be bounced in the first round.
But 11-seeds have replaced 12s and 13s as a trendy upset pick, and the Zags have since rolled through the first two rounds of the tournament, beating the Pirates and then embarrassing 3-seed Utah late Saturday night. On the eve of the second weekend of play, Gonzaga now has a 7 percent chance of making the title game and a 17 percent chance at the Final Four; before the tournament began, those chances were 1 percent and 3 percent, respectively.
What’s remarkable about Gonzaga this tournament isn’t just how well it’s played as an 11-seed, but how it has come into its games with a stronger statistical profile than its opponents — which really shouldn’t happen unless something goes wildly wrong in seeding. In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s power ratings had Gonzaga as a 6-seed, one of the bigger seeding discrepancies in the field, and so far this tournament, the team has had better pre-tournament Pythagorean winning percentage and Simple Rating System metrics than each of its opponents (including Syracuse, whom the Bulldogs face Friday in the Sweet 16). Gonzaga won’t encounter that scenario unless they make the Elite Eight.
We went through all 156 11-seeds1 since 1980, when the field expanded to include at-large teams, to the present, and tracked their tourney progression and how each matched up through SRS, Ken Pomeroy’s Pythagorean ranking (which began in 2002 and contains 67 teams) and our Elo database. Then, for each of those ratings, we found the difference between the 11-seed’s rating and the average of its tournament opponents. According to SRS, at least, not many 11-seeds have been as strong relative to their opponents as Gonzaga.
Most 11s lost in the first round, especially in the early years of the expanded bracket. Even the 11s that made significant runs — LSU (1986), Loyola Marymount (1990), VCU (2011) — began March as considerable underdogs, posting a negative differential in both ratings with their opponents. Only 10 teams had positive differentials in either rating.
|YEAR||11-SEED||MADE IT TO …||PRE-TOURN.||DIFF. FROM TOURNAMENT OPPONENTS||PRE-TOURN.||DIFF. FROM TOURNAMENT OPPONENTS|
|1984||Northeastern||Round of 64||3.1||+2.0||—||—|
|2013||St. Mary’s||Round of 64||14.5||+2.8||0.861||+0.014|
|2015||Texas||Round of 64||16.2||-0.5||0.872||+0.010|
|2016||Michigan||Round of 64||13.9||+1.8||0.766||-0.025|
|2016||Wichita St.||Round of 32||17.5||-1.0||0.912||+0.037|
Wichita State, also an 11 this tournament, had higher Pythagorean and SRS ratings than the Zags. But the Shockers lost in the second round to Miami after getting hosed with a play-in game against Vanderbilt, another strong 11-seed, and a first-round meeting with Arizona, which was underseeded as a 6. The 2014 Tennessee team, which tops both the SRS and Pythagorean charts in terms of strength versus its opponents, had a much easier path in its region — the Volunteers faced 14-seed Mercer in the round of 32, a team that had upset Duke in the first round and one of the weakest opponents an 11 has ever faced.2 Even though Tennessee made the Sweet 16 and nearly upset 2-seed Michigan, the massive differential between it and Mercer — 17.34 to 5.33, by SRS — disproportionately affected its statistical résumé. That game saw an Elo discrepancy of 194 points (1912 to 1718), the second-largest margin of any game an 11-seed has played. Tennessee also played Massachusetts at an Elo advantage of 148 points, the fourth-highest such margin. Meanwhile, Gonzaga’s two games so far rank 12th and 30th all-time.
If Gonzaga is so good, though, why was it seeded so low? The Zags are a high-major squad playing in a mid-major conference — the West Coast Conference has cracked KenPom.com’s top 10 conferences ranking just twice.3 This means the team can pick up only a few high-profile wins during WCC play. Few typically schedules an aggressive nonconference schedule to boost the squad’s Rating Percentage Index, the official and preferred evaluation metric for the NCAA selection committee. This season, though, Gonzaga struggled to pick up a key win, losing to Texas A&M, Arizona, UCLA and Southern Methodist by a total of just 20 points.4 Even with the Bulldogs’ five top-100 wins, their RPI profile was terrible. If Gonzaga hadn’t beaten Saint Mary’s in the WCC Tournament title game to win the league’s auto bid, the Bulldogs would probably be competing in the NIT (which is what happened to the Gaels).
That would have been a shame, because Gonzaga’s underlying metrics are superb — at the close of the regular season, it was one of two teams with an offensive and defensive effective field goal percentage in KenPom’s top 20. What makes Gonzaga special, though, is how efficiently the team’s offense operates, particularly in the half-court. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Gonzaga scores 0.99 points per half-court trip, a rate that is tied for first among tourney teams and fifth overall in Division I. Indiana is the only NCAA Tournament team with a stronger effective field-goal percentage in the half-court than the Zags (55.8 percent, per Hoop-Math.com).
Against Saint Mary’s in the WCC final, the Zags used just 58 possessions to score 85 points (1.47 points per possession). Saint Mary’s defense will never be mistaken for Virginia’s, but that level of offensive efficiency is astounding.
Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer are the team’s high-profile names; Wiltjer transferred to Spokane from Kentucky, and his 6-foot-10 frame belies a big who moves gracefully around the perimeter and can score just as effectively within the arc (53 percent on 2-pointers) as he can from deep (43 percent, which leads the team). Wiltjer has an array of shot fakes, step-backs and step-throughs to get his shot off with even the longest defender crowding his space. Sabonis is an unmovable object on both the offensive and defensive glass, and he’s the best post-up man in D-I. Per Synergy, 42 percent of his possessions come in the block, and he scores 1.15 points per possession on those plays. Against Utah and the Utes’ star big Jakob Poeltl, Sabonis used his quick feet, body awareness and agility to score 19 points on an effective field goal percentage of 70.8 percent.
But while Wiltjer and Sabonis draw most of the attention, it’s the team’s backcourt that will largely determine if Gonzaga not only makes its first Final Four but becomes the first 11-seed to reach the national championship. Eric McClellan (a swingman), Josh Perkins (a point guard), Silas Melson (a point who can also play off-ball) and Kyle Dranginis (a three who is essentially a hybrid wing) struggled at the beginning of the season but have finally begun to match the offensively brilliant output of the team’s frontcourt.
From a higher seed, this sort of late-season surge would be cause to start thinking about a run to Houston and the Final Four. For Gonzaga, the odds are still long, but 17 percent is a far cry better than most 11-seeds see.
Check out FiveThirtyEight’s 2016 March Madness Predictions.