Mar 2, 2013, 7:04 PM EDT
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.
Mar 11, 2014, 12:43 AM EDT
In less than 36 months, Manhattan head coach Steve Masiello has taken the Jaspers from 6-25 to the NCAA tournament.
Mar 11, 2014, 12:05 AM EDT
Get to know the eighth entry into the 2014 NCAA Tournament field, the Wofford Terriers.
Mar 10, 2014, 10:47 PM EDT
Cameron Bairstow spent his offseason toiling in international competition, and return to New Mexico with a chip on his shoulder. After a season spent toying with the other Mountain West frontcourts, Bairstow’s efforts might not get the necessary recognition.
Mar 10, 2014, 10:05 PM EDT
Highlights of Delaware’s win in the CAA title game, as seen on the NBC Sports Network.
Mar 10, 2014, 9:56 PM EDT
Get to know the sixth entry into the 2014 NCAA Tournament field, the Delaware Blue Hens.
Mar 10, 2014, 9:43 PM EDT
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Mar 10, 2014, 9:26 PM EDT
Joel Embiid will miss the Big 12 tournament and likely will be out for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. What does this mean for Kansas?
Mar 10, 2014, 8:23 PM EDT
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Mar 10, 2014, 6:53 PM EDT
Louisiana Tech is fighting to stay on top of Conference USA after four teams tied atop the league standings with a 13-3 record during the regular season.
Mar 10, 2014, 6:45 PM EDT
The CAA Tournament title will take be played in Baltimore on Monday evening. League champ Delaware will square off with Williams & Mary, who is looking to make their first ever trip to the NCAA tournament. The game will tip off at roughly 7:00 p.m. You can watch the game live on NBC Sports Live Extra. WATCH…
Mar 10, 2014, 6:31 PM EDT
UConn’s Shabazz Napier elevates the conversation for the American Athletic Conference’s player of the year discussion.
Mar 10, 2014, 5:57 PM EDT
Despite an arrest for a driving under the influence charge, Oregon State’s Langston Morris-Walker will play in the Pac-12 tournament, and his addition means the Beavers are the conference’s ultimate sleeper pick for a tourney title.
Mar 10, 2014, 5:21 PM EDT
Jason Capel was reportedly fired today, which may put one of the best available class of 2014 recruits on the market again
Mar 10, 2014, 5:14 PM EDT
Joel Embiid has missed the last two games, and Bill Self shines some light on when the center will next play.
Mar 10, 2014, 4:47 PM EDT
What do you expect from a conference that could feature eight NCAA tournament teams?
Mar 10, 2014, 2:59 PM EDT
Creighton and Villanova are the Big East’s two darlings, but which other teams are best positioned to separate themselves from the conference’s middle and earn a bid?
Mar 10, 2014, 1:34 PM EDT
MAAC, CAA and Southern all at stake tonight.
Mar 10, 2014, 12:43 PM EDT
Justin Bieber and Rick Barnes! I shouldn’t have to say more.
Mar 10, 2014, 12:12 PM EDT
Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, Newcomer of the Year and All-Conference teams for every league in the country.
Mar 10, 2014, 11:44 AM EDT
Regular season champion Southern’s ineligible for the NCAA tournament, which could open the door for Texas Southern to grab the league’s automatic bid.
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