With Gonzaga running strong at No. 2 in the country, conversations this week have turned to the NCAA Tournament and whether the Bulldogs will be able to make good on the promise they seem to show this season.
This has become an annual tradition: taking the top school outside of the major conferences, and making every excuse as to why they won't succeed in March. The Zags hold a special place in this game though. They received a No. 1 seed two years ago, and failed to make the Sweet 16, thanks to a little school named Wichita State. Many believed it proved that Gonzaga never deserved that seed in the first place, despite reaching No. 1 in the country and a 32-3 record.
Gonzaga has been highly touted before, and really most years since they first broke into the national consciousness in the late 90s. That the Bulldogs have been in the NCAA Tournament every season since 1999 is incredible for a school that doesn't play in a conference that normally gets multiple bids.
The program has become one that should be celebrated in this age of college basketball. You don't hear any rumors about them doing something untoward to win. And Mark Few shows no signs of bolting for "something better" although it is hard to determine what that might even be given the way that the Bulldogs perform every season.
But maybe there is a reason that Few isn't leaving. After all, there is an impression that he just can't get over the hump in the NCAA Tournament and no major program is going to take a chance on someone that can't win when it truly counts.
Note that this is an impression. It is by no means fact. Few has taken his team to the NCAA Tournament every season that he has been coach. He has reached the Sweet Sixteen five times and the Elite Eight once. Most schools would love that kind of record over a 15-year span.
It isn't "elite", but it is pretty darn consistent.
And you can't blame Few for the Bulldogs losing in the NCAA Tournament. There may be a sentiment that Gonzaga has underperformed because they haven't done what George Mason, and VCU, and Butler, and Wichita State have done, but that is a mistake. The Bulldogs just haven't been built to succeed that deep into March...until now.
We went back and looked at the stats of the opponents that Gonzaga has faced in the NCAA Tournament, going back to 2002, the last season available on KenPom. It is also conveniently the last season when Gonzaga stopped being a "Cinderella" and began being treated like it belonged in the NCAA Tournament, with a seed to match its real strength and not some double-digit snub.
Before we go into the details, let's throw out some facts about teams that reach the Final Four:
- 23 of the last 28 Final Four teams ranked in the top 30 in defensive efficiency according to KenPom's stats. That is 82 percent of the Final Four teams in the last seven years, a pretty good indicator of how best to get yourself to the last weekend.
- The 22 teams that had top 10 values in both offensive and defensive efficiency have made the Final Four 10 times and won five championships. (Source)
Let's take a look at the last stat first as it pertains to Gonzaga. They have never been one of those 22 teams, and it hasn't been close. We tend to think of Gonzaga as a strong shooting team because of some of the players that have been on the floor for the Zags: Adam Morrisson, Dan Dickau, Kelly Olynyk, Kevin Pangos.
And because the Zags have so often been among the best offensive teams in the country, you have the ability to ignore their defense. They can be less than perfect when they are shooting the lights out and running everyone out of the gym.
Since 2002, Gonzaga has been in the top 10 in offensive efficiency five times (2004-6, 2009, 2013). But in all those years, the best they have rated in defensive efficiency came in 2004 when the Zags were 36th.
But it is important to note that Gonzaga made the Sweet 16 twice in those five seasons. They had the offense to get that far. They just didn't have the defense to take it to the next level.
That defensive component is important as you can see from the other statistic. There has been just a single season when Gonzaga's defense has been in the top 30 in the country since 2002, and that came last year. But there was a problem with last season's team: they couldn't score well enough.
Gonzaga was just the 51st rated offense in the country. That isn't bad, but it is rare to see a team that is rated that low go deep in the tournament. In the source for the top 10 stat, there is a great graph that shows the average offensive efficiency for each round in the tournament. Offensive numbers keep going up and up, and at a greater pace than defensive numbers fall.
You can't just be great on offense or defense, you need both. Gonzaga's offense efficiency was 111.4 -- again, nothing to sneeze at, but really just average when you look at the teams making the NCAA Tournament.
That isn't going to hold up when you eventually run into the top-rated defense in the country, which was where Gonzaga ended last season. Arizona stood up to the Zags, and beat them by 23 points.
So when it comes to the 2015 Tournament, you have to believe that Gonzaga is poised for its best breakout since 2009, and could possibly go further depending on how the bracket shakes out.
Gonzaga currently has the 21st best defense in the country and the fourth best offense. They are on the verge of having the kind of profile that matches up well for a deep tournament run: an offense that can knock its opponents down and a defense that can stop them from getting back up again.
Now, if we want to be cautious, here is something to keep in mind. In every tournament loss that Gonzaga has had since 2002, they have lost to a team that had a better adjusted defensive efficiency than them. And while they also have six wins against teams with better defenses during that same period, the Bulldogs have never managed to pull that defensive upset against a team whose defense was rated in the top 30.
That stat has been true no matter how good the Gonzaga offense has been (including Nevada in 2004, UCLA in 2006, North Carolina in 2009 and Wichita State in 2013), and would include every team better on defense than the Zags at this point in the season. When the bracket is revealed, the draw that Gonzaga gets is going to be really important to avoid those 20 teams.
We have already seen how different this Gonzaga team is. The only loss of the season came against those darn Arizona Wildcats in overtime. Arizona has the 4th best defense right now, and a top 20 offense. Gonzaga did more than just hang with the Wildcats, they challenged them. They had a good shot at winning a game that felt a great deal like a Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight game, one that is still among the best that we have seen this year.
This Gonzaga team is better overall than any Bulldogs team since 2002. Come March, there shouldn't be the same doubts about this team or its coach that seem to plague Gonzaga every year.
This time will be different.