Prior to the start of the season, there were a lot of legitimate questions involving the Gonzaga Bulldogs. For as many key players that they retained from last season’s Final Four team, the Zags lost just enough to retain some key question marks to start the season.
It was never a question of whether or not the Zags would be good. It was always a question of how long it would take to click, and once it clicked, what is the full potential of this squad come March?
Right off the bat, in the PK80 Invitational, it looked like Gonzaga could hang with anyone. Despite going 2-1, Gonzaga beat what is now a good Ohio State team, hung on for dear life against what was then a good Florida team, and survived the brutal defense mauling of a potential good Texas team. It was three completely different styled games, and the Zags hung with all three until the bitter end.
If there is one thing we can say about this year’s squad, it is they are a team of streaks—both during the game and during the course of the regular season. Everyone was on cloud nine after the PK80 and an authoritative win over Creighton. But a complete and utter demolition at the hands of the Villanova Wildcats showed Gonzaga still needed a bit of seasoning. Top that off with a somewhat surprising loss against San Diego State to close out the non-conference slate, and by the time conference play was beginning it was back to the drawing board. What Gonzaga team is this? Is it the team that can run and gun with the best of them and grind out gritty wins at the same time, or is it the team that mightily struggles on the offensive end for long periods of the game and will be lucky to hit the Sweet 16?
Conference play really didn’t give us any answers either. The Zags started out by winning their first six games by 30.8 points per contest—a higher point differential than last season’s championship level squad. Then the loss to Saint Mary’s at home happened. Granted, Saint Mary’s played their hearts out, but the offensive lapses, the miscues, and the streaks of poor shooting by Gonzaga contributed just as much. Once again, we were forced to come back down to Earth a bit.
What followed next was the complete opposite of how Gonzaga opened up WCC play. After rolling opponents one by one, Gonzaga was suddenly winning by nine at home to San Francisco, by 10 to San Diego, by eight to BYU, and by 10 on the road to Pacific. Gonzaga was doing what it took to grind out these wins, but the aura of invincibility was completely shattered. For 40 minutes per game, the Zags looked rather mortal against inferior WCC competition. Although the advanced metrics said we were good, it really seemed like the Zags could easily be upset by any team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Just as suddenly as the warning flags were getting a bit of buoyancy, the Zags rolled into Moraga, California and decimated Saint Mary’s in a glorious display of gael tears. By the 10 minute mark, the Zags had a 16 point lead and the final 30 minutes of the game was a clinical execution of a suffocating defense that was the trademark of last year’s championship level squad. Just as suddenly as Gonzaga had started to falter, they righted the ship and looked like a Final Four dark horse for the NCAA Tournament.
We even got a two-game expose of this roller coaster season to close out WCC play this week. On Thursday, the Zags needed every bit of effort to mash out an ugly five point win over San Diego. Last night, outside of one short burst of life from BYU in the first half, the Zags looked strong, focused, and in control of the entire contest in a 79-65 road win.
Which brings us to today. The Zags go into the WCC Tournament as the No. 1 seed. They are ranked No. 6 in the nation due to the instability of the top 10 the entire year, but the advanced metrics back it up quite a bit. KenPom ranks Gonzaga No. 8. Jeff Sagarin and ESPN’s BPI rank the Zags No. 10. And yet, thanks to an incredibly down year in the WCC and some really RPI dragging games, the Zags are only ranked No. 28 in RPI, and are looking at possibly a four-seed (maybe higher, maybe lower) when Selection Sunday rolls around.
It has been a wild year, and it will only get more wild once March starts up. For as many times as this squad has looked legit Final Four worthy this year, there are enough instances in games where the Zags look like they would get upset by the No. 16 seed. The one thing that has remained consistent, however, is this squad can grind—hard. Say what you will about all the lapses this season, but the Zags only lost four games in what was seemingly supposed to be a “bounce-back” year. And, three of those four losses were by a combined 11 points.
This squad has grit, and this squad will be one of the toughest outs when March Madness starts up. At the beginning of the year, my biggest question is what the ceiling of this squad is, and, honestly, I’m not sure the regular season remotely helped me in figuring out the answer.