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Can Zags handle being No. 1? It’s now or never.

Mar 2, 2013, 7:04 PM EDT

Portland v Gonzaga Getty Images

Following No. 1 Indiana’s loss to Minnesota on Tuesday, and Virginia’s big upset of No. 3 Duke, No. 2 Gonzaga appears poised to seize the school’s first No. 1 ranking ever. The questions began to circulate immediately: Do they belong on top? Can they handle the pressure?

The first step in quieting the naysayers happened today: Gonzaga pounded Portland 81-52. It’s not a particularly impressive win in context of the weakness of the West Coast Conference this season, but it’s mega-impressive in the larger context of the top five this season. Indiana is the latest No. 1 team to suffer a surprising loss, but hardly the first. So, we’ll not scoff at the Bulldogs for handling the pressure of that next win, which was absolutely required for anyone to even think of naming them No. 1 next week.

Given that the WCC is providing no challenge for the Zags this year, the deeper question remains: can they win in the Big Dance? Can they make the Final Four? Anything less, at this point, would be an immense letdown for a program that has been knocking on the door for more than a decade.

There are a couple of ways to answer this question. One is the eyeball test. We can all look at what Gonzaga puts on the floor, think back to prior Final Four participants, and say “do they have what it takes?”

The Zags are lousy with upperclassmen, and those upperclassmen are key contributors. Kelly Olynyk, a junior, has put himself in the conversation alongside Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Duke’s Mason Plumlee when the best big men in the nation are discussed. By his side are seniors Elias Harris and Guy Lanrdy Edi and junior Sam Dower. Even freshman Przemek Karnowski has had his moments, which gives Gonzaga a distinctive size plus depth advantage over most opponents they face. The backcourt is a bit younger, featuring sophomores Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, Jr., but legacy junior David Stockton brings some experience to the table.

That’s a team with experience, size, shooters, quality point guard play and a brilliant coach in Mark Few. The eyeball test plays out in their favor.

Second, we can do the math. Tempo-free statistics were developed in hopes of providing predictive metrics with a little science behind them. Per Kenpom.com, Gonzaga has the nation’s third-best adjusted offense, and 23rd-best adjusted defense. In this context, “adjusted” means strength of schedule has been factored in. Those two numbers – combined, adjusted, folded and spun in a centrifuge – put the Zags at No. 4 in the Kenpom rankings, behind Florida, Indiana and Louisville. In fact, Gonzaga is sort of a reverse-Louisville, with the Cards showing the single-digit defensive ranking and double-digits in offense.

So, math also makes them one of the top four teams in America.

Finally, there’s always superstition. Look at Gonzaga’s two losses: When Illinois beat the Bulldogs on December 8, they were ranked No. 13 in the nation. When Gonzaga went into Indianapolis and lost a thriller in Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler was ranked No. 13. C’mon. Everyone knows that’s the unluckiest number there is. As long as they don’t face a 13-seed in the NCAAs, they should be golden.

The Zags are built to win in March, and well-led. They’ve had similar teams in the past, and never made the ultimate leap, being surpassed by latter-day mid-major heroes like George Mason, VCU and, yes, Butler. This is the year they must make good on that promise, because the opportunities will grow thinner in the future. With St. Mary’s recently slapped with a four-year probation, the WCC as a whole is about to take a serious credibility hit, giving each league opponent two less chances to earn an RPI-enhancing win in the regular season.  That places even more pressure on NCAA hopefuls from the conference to schedule tough out-of-conference teams, which generally means lots of long-distance road trips – assuming anyone wants to take them up on it.

So, overall, it looks like the Gonzaga Bulldogs will be No. 1 come Monday, and that they’ll do what must be done to retain that spot. Whether they finally make the Final Four or hoist a title trophy is another question entirely. Right now, Gonzaga has the perfect storm brewing. An opportunity this great may never come again.

Eric Angevine is editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

  1. imaduffer - Mar 2, 2013 at 8:57 PM

    Gonzaga must be pretty good. Does anyone know what TV channel they’re on?

  2. swu32733 - Mar 2, 2013 at 9:11 PM

    Most of their games have been on ESPN.

  3. bordner - Mar 2, 2013 at 9:19 PM

    My thoughts exactly. Everything is aligned for them this year, so it might be now or never. Go Zags!

  4. xli2006 - Mar 2, 2013 at 9:38 PM

    Has there ever been a #1 ranked team this late in the year with only 1 win over a ranked team?

    IU likely falls to 2 or 3 and is 6-0 over ranked teams, 4-0 vs Top 10 (2 of those on the road).

    Meanwhile, Gonzaga will take it’s 1 win over #22 OK St and it’s questionable conference.

    Put Gonzaga in a power conference and see if that record holds… the answer is no. Good team, but their resume doesn’t warrant a top ranking.

    • savoirlaire - Mar 3, 2013 at 9:38 AM

      Absolutely right…a decent team in a terrible conference, and now they’re number one? Who the hell have they beaten? Oh yeah, St. Mary’s and Pepperdine. And yes, I’m also aware they beat Oklahoma, OK St. and Baylor, none of which is anything to get too excited about. And they lose to Illinois and Butler…number one? Hardly. Can you say “Boise State” of basketball? What a joke…

  5. sailbum7 - Mar 2, 2013 at 10:38 PM

    If the Zagnuts are ever going to do it, this is the year it should happen. They have a solid, experienced team and should be able to make a run to the final four.

  6. bordner - Mar 3, 2013 at 12:08 AM

    @xli2006

    First of all – is that how we determine who should be #1? By the number of wins that they have over ranked teams? What about the opposite of that – the number of losses to unranked teams? GU has two losses all season, both to Top-15 ranked teams. IU has 4 losses this season – apparently all to unranked teams. Has there ever been a #1 ranked team this late in the season whose only losses are to unranked teams? They should be happy with their #2 or #3 based on that logic.

    Secondly – this is college BASKETball son. Rankings don’t really mean all that much in the grand scheme of things. There’s a little tournament that starts in a couple of weeks that will determine who the true #1 is. And if that’s your Hoosiers, so be it. Let the Zags and their fans enjoy this for now.

  7. 32stork - Mar 3, 2013 at 4:56 AM

    They play basketball. No chest pounding, phony hard guy looks, crotch grabbing, glaring, whining to referees. The coach is never out on the floor gesturing like an idiot to the referees complaining about every call. Zags are a joy to watch. Go Zags!!!

  8. savoirlaire - Mar 3, 2013 at 8:01 AM

    Give me a break…this is a joke, right? As I’ve said on here before, you put Gonzaga in the Big Ten or Big East and they don’t have two losses…they have ten. They pass their first big test by beating…Portland??!? Their conference is an absolute joke, they are going down hard in the first couple games of the tourney. And people bitch about football rankings? As I’ve said, what a joke that this team is potentially number one…no way!!!

  9. sdb74 - Mar 3, 2013 at 8:09 AM

    Gonzaga would be 9-9 @ best in the Big 10. If they get a #1 seed in the tournament, I would love to be the #2, #3, #4, etc in their region. Common sense & history tell you Gonzaga has no chance to make Final 4.

    • florida727 - Mar 3, 2013 at 9:50 AM

      Common sense also would have said that George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011 and Butler in 2010 AND 2011 couldn’t get into the Final Four without a ticket, right? By the way, don’t forget Utah in 1998 and Mississippi State in 1996.

    • maxfoff06 - Mar 5, 2013 at 7:14 PM

      I’m sure you thought the same thing about Butler, until they took your team out. Common sense and college basketball tradition suggests that even the little guys can play pretty good ball!

  10. sdb74 - Mar 3, 2013 at 8:25 AM

    If Gonzaga played IU, Kansas, Duke, etc 10 times on a neutral floor they may win ONE time.

  11. florida727 - Mar 3, 2013 at 9:45 AM

    I give Gonzaga credit for one thing: they beat whoever is put in front of them. We can criticize their schedule, their conference, whatever, but the bottom line is, they’re the only team in the country with only 2 losses, and both were to Top 15 teams. I’m not a Zags fan, but I say let them enjoy this. The great thing about basketball: they’ll get a chance to prove they deserve it ON THE COURT when the NCAAs roll around. This #1 ranking is huge for their program, huge for their fan base. I say congratulations Zags fans. You should revel in this. It’s hard earned.

    • savoirlaire - Mar 3, 2013 at 10:14 AM

      I call total bullish-t. Your argument holds no water…so a team that plays a second rate schedule should be number one because their competition isn’t nearly as good, but they managed to win them all? Sorry, that is not how you determine “the best team in the country”. And btw, Butler is now number 20 and Illinois is back to their usual level of mediocrity. Again, Gonzaga being number one is a joke and an insult to the rest of the teams at the top. You know, the ones that play in a real conference against real competition night in and night out…

  12. sdb74 - Mar 3, 2013 at 10:58 AM

    Illinois is a middle of the pack Big 10 team (they are 8-8 currently) & they went into Spokane & best Gonzaga by double digits. Enough said.

    • ireportyoudecide - Mar 3, 2013 at 12:13 PM

      That’s a really stupid comment, a terrible Penn St team beat Michigan. Enough said. See how silly that looks just becuase Illinois beat Gonzaga doesn’t mean they are better then them. You have to look deeper then that man. Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt last year on a neutral court. Enough said.

      So by your reasoning Kentucky the national champion was actually terrible last year becuase they lost to Vanderbilt. In March I might add.

  13. jjmd06 - Mar 3, 2013 at 2:13 PM

    Granted the Zags play in a weak WCC conference. But year in and year out they play a tough non conference schedule. But most of those games are played on the road. No one wants to play the Zags at home. I would like to see someone like Duke or Indiana come to Spokane and play Gonzaga and see how deserving of the high ranking the Zags have. Gonzaga will show the college basketball world what we are made of in a couple weeks. Go Zags !!!

  14. sdb74 - Mar 3, 2013 at 3:17 PM

    Point was Gonzaga lost @ HOME to Illinois genius. Michigan lost to Penn St on the ROAD. If Gonzaga is a #1 seed it’s conceivable we could have our first #16 beat a #1. Regardless, Gonzaga won’t make it out of round 2.

  15. sdb74 - Mar 3, 2013 at 3:21 PM

    Point was Gonzaga lost @ HOME to Illinois genius. Michigan lost to Penn St on the ROAD. If Gonzaga is a #1 seed it’s conceivable we could have our first #16 beat a #1. Regardless, Gonzaga won’t make it out of round 2. I couldn’t possibly have less respect for anyone than Gonzaga.

  16. zagdog - Mar 4, 2013 at 1:48 AM

    Big 10 fans are disappointed their teams can’t hold #1. Scoreboard and records don’t matter, only the “power conference”. Zags are 5-0 against Big 12. They have beaten
    Kansas St., Ok St., Ok, Baylor, supposed “power conf.” illini played a great game against Zags,illini also wins against Minnesota and Indy. Zags will finish season with #1 going into Wcc tourney. They have work to do to keep it with a target on their backs.
    St Marys and BYU are tough matchups.

  17. my6bs - Mar 5, 2013 at 2:38 AM

    I want to make sure I got this right: Gonzaga does not deserve to be #1 because they lost to Illinois and Butler, Indiana should be #1 because they ONLY lost to Illinois and Butler (and Wisconsin, and Minnesota). GU should also be dismissed because they lost to Illinois (RPI 34) at home. Pay no mind to Indiana losing to Wisconsin (RPI 43) at home. GU has more top 100 RPI wins than Indiana, Michigan, Michigan St, etc, despite playing fewer games.

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