At the start of the year, a whole bunch of folks in the Gonzaga kingdom were dead set on a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament this year. The Gonzaga Bulldogs had the dudes and the schedule to make it all come together by Selection Sunday, snaring the second No. 1 seed in three years.
As of right now, it looks like that won’t be the case. A vast majority of the major bracketologists are slotting Gonzaga firmly as a No. 2 seed, not the worst spot to be in.
This all may seem a little unfair. The Zags are currently the No. 2 team in the NET Rankings (the new replacement for the RPI). They are No. 4 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, No. 4 in Jeff Sagarin’s rankings, and No. 2 in ESPN’s BPI rankings. By all accounts, this is a No. 1 seed team.
Unfortunately, for Gonzaga, to achieve a No. 1 seed requires perfection, essentially. That is what the 2016-17 squad had (until the loss to BYU in the final regular season game), and that is exactly what Gonzaga does not have this year. The Zags scheduled their hearts out, but they missed two big opportunities by losing to the Tennessee Volunteers and the North Carolina Tar Heels.
With that said, the rankings, especially the NET rankings, do matter in the eyes of the Selection Committee. Presuming that Gonzaga wins out on the rest of the season, the Zags have one of the best statistical profiles out there, and that should put the Zags as a No. 1 seed. Unfortunately, there is that thing known as quadrant wins, and that is where the water gets a bit muddy.
Here is Gonzaga’s team sheet, featuring the quadrants, so far this season:
The Zags, barring a huge rise in the ranking by the Washington Huskies, are going to finish with at least three Quadrant 1 wins (most likely five with a win at Saint Mary’s and another win over the Gaels or the Dons in the WCC Tournament). The Zags are going to finish with at least five Quadrant 2 wins (same number as last year).
Now, of course, the quality of wins is a bit more impressive than last year. That neutral court win over the Duke Blue Devils will shine like the brightest star in an exploding universe and the win over Creighton on the road is a nice cherry on top. Since the Pac 12 is down in the dumps, the Arizona win isn’t as good as it should be. Likewise, the narrow victory over Washington looks nice, but it isn’t enough at the moment.
The conundrum of the WCC this year also adds a bit to the mess. There is no denying that the conference is up overall, but the meat of the WCC still results in largely unimpressive Quadrant 3 victories. The Zags will only get two Quadrant 2 wins out of the conference home games. Any team in a power conference will get more around five to seven.
All of this adds up to mean that unless the Zags figure out a method to game the system better, perfection is the simplest way to a No. 1 seed—easier said than done. As long as the Quadrant System is in play, there is no way the Zags can compete with the profile of a team like Michigan State, who has already played 10 Quadrant 1 games.
There is no simple solution here. Just saying the Zags shouldn’t schedule teams like Denver or North Alabama is easy enough to say, but in practice, a lot harder to do. The Zags are a big draw right now, financially, and the athletic department can’t just send the Zags on the road for the entirety of the non-conference slate and still generate the same revenue for season tickets. It also requires two teams to engage in the process.
Likewise, although the WCC is improving, it hasn’t improved enough quite yet. San Francisco is having a great year and has enough class balance in their roster that they shouldn’t completely fall off the radar next season, and Saint Mary’s is quietly good as always. San Diego will probably face a steep drop-off next season, and let’s be honest, BYU’s past three seasons have left a lot to be desired.
For my money, you can easily generate a solid case that the Zags deserve to be a No. 1 seed. Their two losses came when one of their top players was injured. They went out of their way to deliver a tough non-conference schedule slate, playing more neutral and road games than the presumptive No. 1 seeds of Virginia, Duke, Tennessee, and Michigan State (or Michigan). Statistically, the Zags deserve a No. 1 seed. That statement can be debated, but it isn’t wrong.
It will be interesting to see how it shakes out with the team sheets. The fact of the matter will always remain the same: The WCC cannot generate the number of high-tier wins to resemble the power conferences. The Mountain West Conference would have put Gonzaga in the exact same scenario. This is what it means to be a school with an enrollment of 5,000 students to be in the same tournament featuring schools that have at least three times the number of students (North Carolina, 17,000 enrollment) to eight times the number of students (Michigan State, approximately 39,000 enrollment).
Each year, going forward, for everyone willing to advance the argument that the Zags deserve a No. 1 seed, there will be another that says they don’t. Such is the life of the Gonzaga Bulldogs in March.