With the meat of Gonzaga’s non-conference schedule behind it and WCC play looming on the near horizon, it seemed like an appropriate time to ask the question: How does everyone think the Zags have fared so far this season?
Using the most scientific data-gathering tool possible (a Twitter poll), I provided four options: 1) very underperformed (limited to 25 characters and couldn’t think of a word better than drastically at the time of poll creation), 2) Underperformed, 3) Just right, and 4) Better than expected.
The results show a fanbase divided and with good reason.
Now that we are largely through the real meat of the non-conference schedule, at 9-3, how do you think the Zags have fared so far this season?— Slipper Still Fits (@slipperstillfit) December 19, 2022
The case for underperforming.
This one is pretty easy. If your expectations going into the season were Final Four or better aspirations, which a preseason No. 2 ranking should at least somewhat elicit, it is pretty easy to say the Zags have underperformed. Luckily, the overall failures of some other highly ranked teams (cough cough UNC) have helped overshadow the Zags’ struggles, but Gonzaga crashed back down to Earth this non-conference.
The Zags have lost three games. One very close one against Baylor that was essentially coughed up, and two not-close games at all against Texas and Purdue by 19 and 18, respectively. Granted, both Texas and Purdue are very good teams, but the Zags just did not look competitive in those two contests whatsoever.
The defense is largely in shambles and is currently ranked the lowest it has been by KenPom (No. 57) in well over a decade (No. 63 by the 2009-2010 squad). Drew Timme has been stellar on the offensive end, but the guard play has been inconsistent at best. Efton Reid clearly won’t be making much of an impact this season and Malachi Smith has been completely up and down. Combined with the Zags only bringing in one recruit (Braden Huff, who is redshirting), it is almost as if this team didn’t have any incoming noticeable players, only departures.
Even though the Zags lost Andrew Nembhard and Chet Holmgren, the returns of Drew Timme, Rasir Bolton, and Julian Strawther with the rest of the core should have been enough for this team to earn another No. 1 seed. Although the middle-of-the-pack WCC is better this year, BYU has fallen off the map and the only real opportunity for quality resume-boosting wins comes from Saint Mary’s. Barring some shenanigans from the top teams in college hoops, the Zags can hope for a two-seed, at best. When you are the preseason No. 2 team, that is a disappointment.
The case for just right.
Sure, the Zags got clobbered by Purdue and Texas and annoyingly lost that game against Baylor. They also defeated Alabama in essentially a road environment, easily handled Kentucky at home, and mounted a stellar come-from-behind victory over Michigan State on a big boat. Even with No. 321 Northern Illinois in the mix, the Zags current non-conference strength of schedule is No. 8 according to KenPom. After next week’s game against Eastern Oregon, it’ll probably finish in the top 15. The Zags will have gone 11-3 in a brutal slate that featured eight top 50 KenPom teams, plus an underrated Kent State squad.
It is the toughest non-conference schedule since the 2008-09 team went up against Oklahoma State, Maryland, Tennessee (twice), Washington State (when they were good), Arizona, UConn, Utah, and Memphis, for a non-conference ranking of No. 13.
For context, non-conference SOS for the past few years:
- 2022: No. 248
- 2021: No. 112
- 2020: No. 245
- 2019: No. 105
- 2018: No. 78
- 2017: No. 127
Drew Timme has been absolutely stellar and we are seeing some key young pieces demonstrate immediate growth throughout this brutal non-conference schedule. Hunter Sallis is one of the nation’s best perimeter defenders and is looking more natural on offense every passing game. After a rough start, Nolan Hickman hasn’t turned the ball over in 91 minutes. Ben Gregg has come out of nowhere and demonstrated he can be an impact player on this squad.
What about that preseason No. 2 ranking? Yeah, essentially, what about it? There shouldn’t be a lot of weight put into preseason rankings. UNC was the preseason No. 1 team because they returned almost everyone from a national championship-appearing squad...that just so happened to get hot at the exact right time and came into the tournament as a No. 8 seed, not a No. 1 seed.
Gonzaga entered the season with very real questions about interior defense after losing Chet Holmgren and an untested point guard after losing Andrew Nembhard. But the pundits just sort of said this is the No. 2 team in the nation because Drew Timme and Julian Strawther are back.
Considering the two top teams in the nation right now, Purdue and UConn, weren’t even in the top 25 to begin the season is yet another example in a long list of examples of why the AP Polls (especially the preseason one) are pointless. Just look at the carnage in the top 10 from the preseason top 25 to the current top 25.
AP Carnage Poll
|preseason rank||team||current rank||week 7 rank||team||preseason rank|
|preseason rank||team||current rank||week 7 rank||team||preseason rank|
What is the real answer in a realm of opinions? I would argue somewhere in the middle. If the Zags had lost the games to Purdue and Texas by a combined 18 points, things might be a little different. But they didn’t. The Zags had two thorough beatdowns, something we are not used to happening on the regular, that exposed and magnified the Zags’ current flaws. Turnovers have been an issue. Defense has been an issue. It is fair to posit if the NCAA Tournament started today, the ceiling might be the Sweet 16.
And yet, validation has to be lent to the difficulty of Gonzaga’s schedule. If the season was a marathon, the Zags have been at a dead sprint for roughly the first 13.1 miles. Whereas previous very good Gonzaga teams were able to work on said issues with a steady stream of cupcakes, these Zags did not have that opportunity. The learning and growth has come on national television.
Just take a look at the current top 10 most difficult non-conference schedules and the team’s corresponding KenPom ranking:
- Arkansas Pine Bluff (No. 353)
- Nicholls State (No. 219)
- Texas Southern (No. 253)
- North Florida (No. 231)
- Florida A&M (No. 358)
- Michigan State (No. 39)
- Jackson State (No. 301)
- Gonzaga (No. 10)
- Southern (No. 238)
- Bellarmine (No. 244)
Expectations are always a tricky beast because they are personal. If you thought Nolan Hickman was going to just slot in and hit the ground running and pick up exactly where a senior-year and current NBA player Andrew Nembhard left off, that is largely on you. If you are pulling your hair out because you expected the interior defense to be better, after three previous years of Drew Timme demonstrating that is not his forte whatsoever, again, that is largely on you. The issues and questions facing the team this year were largely predictable and should not have come as much of a shock.
Either way, does it matter that the Zags have underperformed or played as expected? Not really. We are only halfway through the season. The Zags have plenty of time to get better and satisfy the cravings for a deep NCAA Tournament run. Or they have plenty of time to continue to struggle and finally show a glimmer of returning to a somewhat normal basketball state after an unparalleled run of success within the program over the past three years.
Regardless, I’ll be tuning in because I have no idea what I would do with my time otherwise. Hope everyone has a relaxing and restful Holiday and we will see you in a few days.