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On Gonzaga’s non-conference schedule

This year’s non-conference schedule, although good, is a bit extreme.

NCAA Basketball: Lewis Clark State at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, the Zags opened the season with a win over the KenPom No. 310 Dixie State Trailblazers. On Saturday, their second game of the season will be the No. 14 ranked Texas Longhorns at home. Such are the extremes of the Gonzaga Bulldogs’ non-conference slate.

In a previous lifetime, the old adage of the Gonzaga men’s basketball program was “anytime, anywhere.” In the long drawn out process of Gonzaga transitioning from a flash in the pan Elite Eight run to one of the top programs in the nation, that is one of the many ways the Zags initially made a name for themselves—going on the road to very hostile arenas and pulling upsets.

Today, the Zags are the No. 1 team in the nation, so understandably, things are a bit different. However, despite how “good” the non-conference schedule appears, there has been quite a bit of consternation at the rest of the opponents, and with very good reason.

Here is Gonzaga’s non-conference schedule with their opponents’ corresponding preseason KenPom ranking.

  • UCLA, 7
  • Duke, 10
  • Texas Tech, 12
  • Texas, 14
  • Alabama, 19
  • Washington, 102
  • Bellarmine, 175
  • Merrimack, 210
  • Tarleton State, 216
  • North Alabama, 299
  • Central Michigan, 303
  • Dixie State, 310
  • Northern Arizona, 327
  • Alcorn State, 341

That is a lot of good at the top but it is also a lot of crap at the bottom. Although the Zags will play the best of the best to open the season, the rest of it acts as a bit of an anchor. Gonzaga’s average KenPom non-conference opponent ranking is just 167.

So I took a look at the rest of the KenPom top 10 teams. I am trying to figure out, is it just Gonzaga that has this extreme bit of scheduling? Is there any reason we cannot find any teams in the 100s to come into Spokane?

It turns out, the Zags are doing what basically everyone else is doing. Here is the breakout of each of the top 10 teams in terms of Quad 1 games and Quad 4 games.

Top 10 KenPom Teams

Team Quad 1 Games Quad 4 Games Average KenPom Ranking
Team Quad 1 Games Quad 4 Games Average KenPom Ranking
Gonzaga 5 8 167
Michigan 1 3 127
Kansas 3 3 122
Baylor 3 6 192
Illinois 1 5 168
Purdue 2 5 154
UCLA 3 5 166
Ohio State 4 4 152
Villanova 4 3 134
Duke 3 7 169

If you look at that chart, Gonzaga is actually running the same sort of spread as the rest of the teams. Gonzaga leads the top 10 in number of non-conference Quad 1 games, but they also lead the top 10 in number of Quad 4 games (although Duke is nearly on the cusp).

However, when it comes to the extremes, few teams do it like the Gonzaga schedule. The Zags play five sub-300 KenPom teams this year (technically four but we will count Northern Alabama at No. 299). Only Baylor approaches that level of futility, playing against the No. 331, 332, 341, 352, and 356 teams.

Duke, which nears the Zags with seven (almost eight) Quad 4 games, doesn’t hit the dredges nearly as often. Remember, a Quad 4 game is any team ranked 161 or greater at home, 201 or greater on a neutral court, or 241 or greater on the road. Duke plays the No. 169 Campbell Camels at home—hardly a cupcake, but still a Quad 4 game.

There are multiple things happening here to explain Gonzaga’s schedule, a few things theoretically somewhat in their control, and a few things that are not.

First off, scheduling, an already hard process, has been made much harder for mid major teams as the Power 5 conferences have gradually expanded the number of conference games they play. For example, Michigan plays 10 non-conference games to Gonzaga’s 14. Right off the bat, this leaves the Zags with fewer opportunities to schedule teams from the Power 5 conferences.

Teams in the Power 5 conferences (plus the Big East which also only plays 10 non-conference games) account for 75 of the top 150 KenPom ranked teams. Digging deeper, they account for 67 of the top 100 teams. With conference games gobbling up those opportunities, scheduling these teams has gotten harder and harder every year.

However, that is only half of the top 150 KenPom teams. So the question is, how come Gonzaga isn’t able to get much else?

This is where the Zags can (theoretically) have a bit more control—schedule locally. The Zags still have their home-and-home series with the University of Washington (KenPom #102). They don’t have anything on the horizon with Seattle University (No. 167), Washington State (on the obvious up and up—No. 63), or Montana (No. 148). Elsewhere, within the greater Pacific Northwest region, Portland State (No. 223) and Eastern Washington (No. 243) would still be obvious improvements over some of the Zags’ current opponents.

However, to do this, the Zags would have to do what they now tend to only do with the big name squads: schedule a home-and-home. Most of those above-listed regional teams are probably not too keen on traveling to Spokane each and every year just to get beat in front of the Gonzaga faithful. Likewise, Gonzaga is probably a little bit reluctant to give up that prime home game sellout crowd money by traveling to Portland State for a game.

But sometimes, you need to look beyond money and do what provides the best basketball. Villanova, for example, has played home-and-homes with both Penn and La Salle for well over two decades (and plays them both “on the road” this year). Neither Penn nor La Salle have been consistently good over the course of those two decades, but they have both been overall better than the likes of Northern Alabama, Dixie State, Arkansas Pine Bluff, Alabama State, Incarnate Word, Mississippi Valley State, Southeastern Louisiana, Coppin get the idea.

Scheduling is a delicate dance, often done months in advance, so it is hard to see if the cookie crumbles into a cupcake. Perhaps this year just ended up extra bad, but it is a continuation of a somewhat troubling trend: the Zags’ non-conference slate is either can’t-miss-basketball or fine-if-you-fall-asleep-at-halftime-basketball. There is a large middle ground there and it is unfortunate Gonzaga isn’t tapping into it.