Somethings are easier said than done, such as saying, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are a legitimate Final Four contender.
March Madness is called March Madness for a very specific reason, and the Zags have definitely been on the receiving end of it throughout their 20 year streak in the NCAA Tournament. Everything can be coming up Milhouse at one moment, and the next moment you are staring at a Stephen Curry led Davidson squad, or a Wichita State team intent on draining every single three pointer on the planet, or a UCLA squad that refuses to give up.
The Zags, after a lot of work, hard effort, and ultimately just trying again year after year, finally made their first Final Four last season. Granted, last year’s season was one of the best teams in college, and the best team in school history. It also had one of the key ingredients required for deep runs in the NCAA Tournament: A balanced offense and defense.
Here is the list of all of the Final Four teams since 2010 and their corresponding KenPom rankings, with the team that won the national championship that year bolded.
There is a pretty key consistent throughout the years. Teams either 1) are balanced offensively and defensively, or 2) completely excel at either offense or defense. Now granted, like all years, there are some teams that do not fit into the mix, but generally speaking, the combined offensive/defensive attack is one of the ways to go.
Last year, there were six teams that had a top 20 ranked offense and defense by Ken Pomeroy. Three of those six teams ended up in the Final Four. Of the other three: Wichita State lost to Kentucky, which then lost to North Carolina, and Villanova just got flat out upset. It happens.
This year, there are basically five teams with an offense and defense ranked within the top 20, and technically only three: Gonzaga, Duke, and Michigan State. Let’s give Virginia (No. 21 offense, No. 1 defense) and Villanova (No. 1 offense, No. 22 defense) a pass into this esteemed group.
The key reason for Gonzaga Final Four related enthusiasm is that the other top three seeds in the West Bracket, No. 1 Xavier, No. 2 North Carolina, and No. 3 Michigan, are all absent from this balanced group.
In fact, here are their KenPom splits:
- Xavier: No. 7 offense, No. 59 defense
- North Carolina: No. 4 offense, No. 34 defense
- Michigan: No. 29 offense, No. 4 defense
The Gonzaga Bulldogs are like last year’s version of West Virginia, the woefully underseeded team that no one really wants to meet at any point of the NCAA Tournament. Granted, that West Virginia team ran into the No. 1 seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs, but the difference here is in the details. Gonzaga is ranked six places higher in KenPom over Xavier.
Part of what makes Gonzaga such a ridiculously tough out is the fact that the team is so absurdly balanced. They are one of the few teams with five players averaging double digits in scoring. Johnathan Williams is the leading scorer, but he is just as likely to find the ball in his hands late in the game as Zach Norvell.
The Zags are also a surprisingly tournament prepared team. Everyone talks so much about what Gonzaga lost from last season, but they leave out what Gonzaga kept for this season. Johnathan Williams, Killian Tillie, Josh Perkins and Silas Melson all played major minutes for a championship level squad last season. Rui Hachimura saw time last season and Zach Norvell redshirted through the run. It isn’t like this is a group of lambs walking into the slaughter. These are veteran players who have big on the biggest stage college basketball has to offer.
Finally, after bucking the Final Four monkey last season, this Gonzaga team is the most dangerous because they have nothing to lose. They are the No. 8 team in the country but the No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They weren’t even picked to win the WCC by their own fellow coaches. Josh Perkins summed it up perfectly: “We didn’t get the respect that we deserved, nationwide or in the conference. We had a big chip on our shoulders, and I think it showed this weekend.”