If you’re nostalgic for the days when Gonzaga was a reliable source of March Madness upsets, look to the women’s tournament.
As a No. 11 seed, the Bulldogs are making an unlikely run, having already knocked off No. 6 George Washington and No. 3 Oregon State last weekend in Corvallis, Oregon. That earned the Bulldogs a trip home this weekend: They get to play in their city of Spokane, Washington, on Saturday against eight-time national champ Tennessee. Our March Madness predictions give Gonzaga a 31 percent chance of pulling off the upset, thanks to home-city advantage, and projects this matchup to be the closest of any Sweet 16 game on Saturday.
Gonzaga’s women’s team has thrived in the NCAA tournament in recent years despite usually playing with a double-digit number next to its name. In 2009, Gonzaga won its opener as a No. 12 seed. That was the Bulldogs’ first tournament win ever. They lost narrowly in the next round, but the program was just getting started. Three times since then when seeded at No. 11, Gonzaga advanced to the Sweet 16. One of those times, in 2011, it went all the way to the Elite 8, the furthest any team seeded so low has ever advanced.
In just the last seven tournaments, Gonzaga has written a significant portion of the short history of upsets in the women’s tournament. In 1994, the event expanded to 64 teams. Since then, favorites have ruled. In the last 22 tournaments, teams seeded 10th or lower have won just 102 games, according to data provided by ESPN Stats and Information. That’s fewer than five wins per year, over all rounds, for 28 teams. Gonzaga has eight of those 102 wins, all since 2009. No other program has more than four.
Here are the teams with at least three wins as a No. 10 seed or worse since 1994:
- Gonzaga, 8
- BYU, 4
- Florida State, 4
- Kansas, 4
- Marist, 4
- UC Santa Barbara, 4
- Notre Dame, 3
- San Diego State, 3
- SMU, 3
- Stephen F. Austin, 3
Gonzaga’s return to the Sweet 16 this spring after a two-year absence is particularly impressive because the Bulldogs are playing for a first-year coach. Kelly Graves, who led Gonzaga to its first NCAA tournament win in 2009 and three straight Sweet 16 appearances in the next three years, left to coach Oregon last April. Lisa Fortier, his longtime assistant, replaced Graves. Fortier also had to contend with the graduation of her two starting guards. She helped fill one of the vacancies on the coaching staff with her husband, Craig, who left Eastern Washington’s men’s program to work as one of her assistants.
“Winning and losing, he’s fixed in,” the head coach told the Spokesman-Review of Spokane about her assistant and husband this week. “It’s been especially helpful in this first year.”
Part of Gonzaga’s success stems from its good fortune to play so many games in and near Spokane, turning the national tournament into what sometimes feels like the Spokane Invitational. In 2010, as a No. 7 seed, Gonzaga won its first two games in Seattle. In 2011, the scheduling worked even more in the Bulldogs’ favor: They played their first two rounds at their home arena, and their next two at another arena in Spokane.1 In 2012 and 2013 Gonzaga again got to open at home, which helped it to a Sweet 16 berth in 2012 but wasn’t enough to upset Iowa State the next year. And this weekend it gets to play at a Spokane arena about a mile from campus.
“It’s kind of like a home game for [Gonzaga] and so it’s going to be loud with a lot of people there, but we’re excited,” Tennessee guard Ariel Massengale told the AP.
Gonzaga’s men used to be the ones regularly upsetting higher ranked teams. In the three tournaments from 1999 to 2001, each time Gonzaga was seeded 10th or worse, and each time the Bulldogs reached at least the Sweet 16. They won seven games altogether, six of them against teams with better seeds. Now the Gonzaga men regularly get much better seeds, including a No. 2 seed this year on their way to the Elite 8.
“The men helped the Gonzaga name get out there,” Gonzaga women’s star Courtney Vandersloot said after leading the Bulldogs to the 2011 Elite 8, “and they showed that even though we don’t play in a big conference and we’re not really nationally known that we can go far in the tournament.”
Perhaps in the future the Gonzaga women’s team will have the advantage of a favorable draw to go along with the home-court advantage it has already enjoyed.
Check out FiveThirtyEight’s March Madness predictions.