Skip to content

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Fresno State guard knocks down five straight half-court shots (VIDEO)

    Oct 22, 2014, 7:03 PM EDT

    Cezar Guerrero Cezar Guerrero

    Cezar Guerrero knocked down five straight from half-court during the team’s Red and White Hoops Night event Tuesday.

  2. Newcomer’s knee issue stretches Oregon’s thin rotation even further

    Oct 22, 2014, 6:43 PM EDT

    altman AP

    Oregon didn’t have much depth to begin with due to various personnel issues, so Michael Chandler’s lingering knee problem is a major concern.

  3. Bruce Pearl invades marketing class to promote ‘Pearl Jam’ (VIDEO)

    Oct 22, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT

    AP Photo AP

    People don’t come more intense than Bruce Pearl.

  4. Three-star guard commits to SMU, reclassifies to 2016

    Oct 22, 2014, 4:25 PM EDT

    Larry Brown Larry Brown

    Given SMU’s depth on the perimeter, LaGerald Vick’s decision to move back in classes will help both parties in the future.

  5. 2014-15 Season Preview: 20 Impact Freshmen

    Oct 22, 2014, 4:06 PM EDT

    Justin Jackson (left) and Jahlil Okafor (right) at the McDonald's All-American Game Justin Jackson (left) and Jahlil Okafor (right) at the McDonald's All-American Game

    College basketball will have plenty of impact freshmen this season. Here’s a look at some that could step in and contribute right away.

  6. Report: Texas plans to start paying their athletes $10,000 stipend

    Oct 22, 2014, 3:18 PM EDT

    Rick Barnes AP

    The Longhorns are the first school in the country to do this.

  7. Stanford lands a commitment from four-star seven-footer

    Oct 22, 2014, 2:55 PM EDT

    dawkins Getty Images

    The Cardinal now have three four-star recruits in the Class of 2015.

  8. UNC investigation states bogus classes pushed by academic counselors to athletes

    Oct 22, 2014, 2:09 PM EDT

    Roy Williams Getty Images

    Wednesday’s report is much more damning than either of the previous two that have been released.

  9. SEC preseason media poll and all-SEC team announced

    Oct 22, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT

    SEClogo

    There is one big name that wasn’t named to the preseason first team.

  10. 2014-2015 Season Preview: NDSU, SDSU take step back in Summit League hierarchy

    Oct 22, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT

    Scott Sutton (AP Photo) Scott Sutton (AP Photo)

    The top half of the Summit League will be a tight race all season long.

  11. The Big East releases their preseason poll, all-league teams

    Oct 22, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT

    BigEastLogo

    The Big East coaches love Villanova, but are they sleeping on Marquette?

  12. Report: ULM freshman charged with rape

    Oct 22, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT

    keith richard AP

    ULM has some off-the-court issues to address with the season looming.

  13. Top 25 Countdown: No. 13 VCU Rams

    Oct 22, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT

    Treveon Graham (AP Photo) Treveon Graham (AP Photo)

    Fun fact about Shaka Smart: He has still never won a conference regular season title.

  14. Report: Stanford guard to miss action with a broken wrist

    Oct 21, 2014, 11:00 PM EDT

    Pac 12 Basketball Tournament - Stanford v California Getty Images

    Stanford’s back court depth took a hit this week.

  15. James Madison announces suspensions for two players

    Oct 21, 2014, 9:45 PM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Suspensions have been handed down for two James Madison players involved in a fall altercation.

  16. Nebraska lands commitment from 2016 forward

    Oct 21, 2014, 8:38 PM EDT

    Tim Miles AP

    Nebraska has been recruiting the state of Illinois very hard and it paid off with a 2016 commitment.

  17. Kansas State loses forward for the season

    Oct 21, 2014, 8:15 PM EDT

    La Salle v Kansas State Getty Images

    Kansas State has taken a hit to its front court depth this week.

  18. Florida guard cleared to return to practice

    Oct 21, 2014, 7:15 PM EDT

    Southern v Florida Getty Images

    Florida’s backcourt depth received a big boost this week.

  19. Georgia State guard Kevin Ware will miss time with high ankle sprain

    Oct 21, 2014, 6:15 PM EDT

    Martino Brock, Kevin Ware AP

    Georgia State loses Kevin Ware with a high ankle sprain.

  20. Improved American team ready to defend Patriot League title in 2014-2015

    Oct 21, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT

    AUEagles.com AUEagles.com

    American went from ninth in the Patriot League preseason polls to a No. 15 seed in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Safe to say, the Eagles will be viewed much differently this time around with four returning starters.