As they prepared for a conference home game against the University of the Pacific on Jan. 23, the Gonzaga Bulldogs were 14-0 and ranked No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings. That night, they scored 1.28 points per possession, led 34-8 midway through the first half and won 95-49. But by the time they took the floor again, five days later against San Diego, they had fallen to No. 2 in Pomeroy’s rankings. Such is the difficulty with measuring an elite team in an otherwise lackluster conference.
Over the past two decades, the Bulldogs have become one of the nation’s top men’s basketball programs, with appearances in 22 straight NCAA Tournaments and 10 top-four seeds in that span.1 They’ve also failed to win a national championship, with their closest bid coming in 2017 against North Carolina. On paper, this weekend brings Gonzaga’s best chance to snag that title. The Bulldogs have an 83 percent chance of knocking out UCLA in the Final Four on Saturday and a 52 percent chance of cutting down the nets on Monday, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model.
No matter how many times a top-20 Gonzaga team reaches the Sweet 16, the school never seems to escape the question of whether a powerhouse from a mid-major conference can survive six single-elimination tests in a row, usually against increasingly difficult competition. It’s true that while 12 conferences have reached the Final Four this century, and 10 have gone onto the title game, only six can claim a national champion.2 But if the stereotypical mold of a Gonzaga title contender is one whose flaws are exposed against an elite opponent after months of West Coast Conference blowouts, these Bulldogs are different in at least three ways: They’re well-rounded; they played one of the toughest schedules in school history; and their conference is as strong as it has ever been.
|2020-21||30-0||5.10||28.23||1||In national semifinal|
|2018-19||33-4||5.01||27.79||1||Lost in Elite Eight|
|2017-18||32-5||2.59||18.43||4||Lost in Sweet 16|
|2016-17||37-2||4.13||25.26||1||Lost in national final|
|2015-16||28-8||4.23||16.92||11||Lost in Sweet 16|
|2014-15||35-3||5.12||21.12||2||Lost in Elite Eight|
|2013-14||29-7||5.36||15.56||8||Lost in round of 32|
|2012-13||32-3||4.18||20.47||1||Lost in round of 32|
|2011-12||26-7||3.25||13.86||7||Lost in round of 32|
|2010-11||25-10||4.01||13.86||11||Lost in round of 32|
|2009-10||27-7||3.83||12.11||8||Lost in round of 32|
|2008-09||28-6||3.55||17.95||4||Lost in Sweet 16|
|2007-08||25-8||2.15||14.81||7||Lost in round of 64|
|2006-07||23-11||3.77||12.15||10||Lost in round of 64|
|2005-06||29-4||5.02||12.32||3||Lost in Sweet 16|
|2004-05||26-5||4.37||13.30||3||Lost in round of 32|
|2003-04||28-3||3.32||18.94||2||Lost in round of 32|
|2002-03||24-9||3.80||12.26||9||Lost in round of 32|
|2001-02||29-4||0.74||13.90||6||Lost in round of 64|
|2000-01||26-7||0.32||12.57||12||Lost in Sweet 16|
|1999-00||26-9||4.64||16.38||10||Lost in Sweet 16|
Mark Few’s team this year is not only the No. 1 team in Pomeroy’s efficiency metric but the highest-ranking team in his database, going back to the 2001-02 season. By that metric, the Bulldogs are 8.1 points better per 100 possessions than the current Baylor squad, which is a historically strong No. 2 team, and 1.9 points better per 100 possessions than the 2014-15 Kentucky team that finished 38-1. That Kentucky team is the only team in the past seven years with a higher Simple Rating System number than Gonzaga’s 28.23 — also the best in school history.
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This is also a highly regarded Gonzaga team from a talent perspective, with two of the four highest-rated signees (Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme) in program history. Suggs has a chance to supplant Adam Morrison, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft, as the highest-picked Bulldog ever.
As for Gonzaga’s oft-maligned schedule, Few stacked this year’s nonconference season with a slew of high-major opponents: Iowa, Virginia, West Virginia, Kansas and Auburn. The Bulldogs beat them all — and all but West Virginia by double digits. As a result, Gonzaga’s strength of schedule is its third-toughest in the past 60 years according to Sports-Reference.com, just a shade behind the 2013-14 and 2014-15 teams. Entering the NCAA Tournament, Pomeroy’s site ranked Gonzaga’s schedule 94th. By that metric, even teams like Arizona State and Butler,3 which were competitive in major conferences this season, would have been expected to go about .500 against Gonzaga’s schedule.
The nonconference foes are only part of that. The West Coast Conference is the eighth-strongest in college basketball this year,4 with six teams in Pomeroy’s top 100. BYU held up as the second-best of Gonzaga’s regular-season opponents, per Pomeroy’s ratings, even as the Bulldogs beat the Cougars three times, including a 10-point victory in the WCC title game.
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Of course, assuming Gonzaga advances to the national championship on Monday, either potential matchup would give Gonzaga its strongest opponent of the season. (Baylor is second in Pomeroy’s rankings, and Houston is third.) But in an interesting twist, Gonzaga’s strength of schedule rating (5.10) is largely comparable with Baylor’s (6.04) and Houston’s (4.86), despite Baylor’s grueling Big 12 season.
Given that Gonzaga just reached its sixth straight Sweet 16, and that the Bulldogs are the highest-rated program in Pomeroy’s rankings5 not to win a national championship, it’s fair to view the program through the lens of that elusive title. And it’s true that since 2002, when Gonzaga earned its first top-eight seed in school history and became a first-round favorite, it has underperformed relative to seeding expectations. This team, though, has departed from the defining traits of past contenders. As long as they’re in the WCC, the Bulldogs may never fully test themselves as a high-major peer would — but this year, they’ve done about as much as they can.
Check out our latest March Madness predictions.