Looking at the Gonzaga Bulldogs schedule, there are a lack of teams with any numbers attached to the team name. That is what made the opening game loss in the Maui Invitational hurt even more. After that, there wasn't a possibility of facing either the Baylor Bears or the Syracuse Orange.
When the Bulldogs announced their non-conference slate, the general reaction around the internet was a bit "meh". Part of everything we've become accustomed to is the idea of the Zags as the travel tested road warriors -- a team that enjoys the rigors of the opponents gym more than the comfort of Spokane. This year, things are a bit different.
Let's take a quick look at some of the numbers, just ignoring the difference between road/neutral and just looking at it from a home/away split. I also went ahead and counted the Battle in Seattle as a home game instead of a neutral game. The non-conference strength of schedule comes courtesy of Ken Pomeroy's stats.
*this non-conference rating is as of Dec. 17
My first thought going into the season was the Zags have played a lot of home games. But looking at the schedule, they are hitting the road on about par for what the school normally charters. The big difference is the quality of opponents we are facing while out on the road. The Zags have games against Kansas State and Memphis left on the non-conference bracket. That means the strength of schedule is bound to go up, but it will probably enter conference play as the lowest since we posted a ranking of 90 in 2005 -- if not lower.
The term thrown about is a "statement win". This apparently means that before the win you were illegitimate, but after you win you are legitimate. It is also a standard reserved only for good teams who everyone thinks are overrated. The Iowa State Cyclones have a statement win over then No. 7 Michigan, and that is why they belong in the top 25. The UCLA Bruins do not have a statement win yet, and that is why they may be a bit overrated.
The Bulldogs went on the road to pick up a win at West Virginia. This is a pretty big deal. West Virginia has always taken care of business at home before launching into the conference haul. Over the past 10 years, West Virginia is 53-3 at home in non-conference games. Before Gonzaga, they were 53-2. Kudos to the Bulldogs for picking up that win, but the win at West Virginia is one we won't know how it will look until the end of the year. The Mountaineers are proud members of the Big 12, which means competing against Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Baylor and Kansas. There is a good chance that West Virginia makes the tournament, and there is just as good of a chance that they don't. If the Mountaineers are playing in March, the Zags win in December will look a lot more shiny.
The NCAA Tournament is a lot of things, and luck of the draw is a big part of it. Since we are one of the best shooting teams in the nation, we can also be one of the more surprising teams in the tournament. Location will have a big part about that. Washington State is hosting a regional in Spokane, and that means if Gonzaga ends with a high enough seed, there is a good chance that the Bulldogs could be at home for the second and third rounds of the tournament. To do that, the Bulldogs will need to take care of business in conference, because going into WCC play, our resume will be a bit thin. In my mind, there are three "statement" wins left for the Zags to make. All three are in February. I don't expect them to make all three, but if they do, say hello to games in Spokane in March.
Sat., Feb. 8 @ Memphis Tigers
The Memphis Tigers often have the trivia tag of ‘nation's longest home winning streak' attached, and with good reason. Over the past five years, the Tigers have won at least 17 games at the FedEx Forum. Over the past five years, the Tigers are 92-11, with an additional 4-0 so far this season. They have also had the Bulldogs since the series started, going 5-2. This year, with the stellar freshmen class coach Josh Pastner brought in, a lot of people are pegging the Tigers as a potential Final Four candidate. A win here will launch Gonzaga into the seeding territory they need to be for Spokane.
Thu., Feb. 20 @ BYU Cougars
The Bulldogs are 1-1 at the Marriott Center since BYU joined the WCC. The Marriott Center fits close to 23,000 absolutely deranged maniacs who froth at the mouth any time something goes slightly against the Cougars. It isn't just a tough home environment -- it is one of the toughest in the country. Including this season, the Cougars are 77-12 when in Provo. This is also what it sounds like when the Cougars are winning those game.
The Cougars faithful are loud, they are annoying and they are everything that you expect from a good college crowd.
Sat., March 1 @ Saint Mary's Gaels
Ah yes. The hated WCC rival in their hated McKeon Pavilion. Since the Gaels program resurgence into consistent relevancy, a lot of it has been because they do what good teams do at home -- win as often as possible. Since the 2008-09 season, the Gaels are 86-8. Thing is, the Zags are responsible for half of those losses in that time span, only missing out on a win in the 2012 season. Those wins have spread from easy (2013, 17 points) to just barely squeaking it out (2009, 2 points). Either way, with the game between the two teams hitting a fever pitch and the fact that much of the national media recognizes the rivalry, this is a must win. Also, with the way the BYU and Saint Mary's seasons have started to progress in different directions, the Bulldogs could very well be playing a ranked Saint Mary's team by the time this game rolls around. A win on the road against a top-25 Saint Mary's is one of the few statements the Bulldogs have the opportunity to make in the WCC.