Well, folks. We are finally here. The Gonzaga Bulldogs, seemingly against all odds (or sometimes how the narrative seemed), are a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and looking to make yet another deep run into March.
It isn’t going to be easy of course. Statistically, the West Region might be one of the toughest, if you go by the advanced metrics. The No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks might be the “weakest” one-seed with a KenPom No. 9 ranking. But UCLA (No. 2), UConn (No. 4), and Saint Mary’s (No. 11) are under-seeded based on their analytical strength.
For Gonzaga, more so than ever this season, they will need their NCAA-best offense to be clicking for 40 full minutes, each game, for a few weekends. Luckily for the Zags, it’s been that, and then some, as of late.
Here is a number for you: Since Feb. 1, 2023, the Zags adjusted offensive efficiency (according to Barttovik.com) stands at 133.7. Baylor, the second-best team, comes in at 125.4 during the same span—a difference of 8.3 points. Subtract another 8.3-point margin from Baylor, and you drop all the way down to the No. 20 team—BYU.
In short, Gonzaga’s offense has been running at an absurd level of efficiency as of late. We’ve seen it in the scores: 99 against San Francisco, 108 against LMU, 97 against Pepperdine, 97 against San Diego, and of course, the two most recent beatdowns of the Saint Mary’s Gaels.
The defense during the same time period is exactly as it has been all year—fully meh (No. 78 to be exact), which is essentially what it has been all season long. I referenced this point in a post a week ago, but with the way the offense is steamrolling at the moment, they don’t need 40 minutes of good defense to pull out a win. They just need eight or nine minutes of stops.
Meanwhile, the onus will be on the opposing defenses to slow down the juggernaut. If they are able to, Gonzaga is incredibly vulnerable. If they aren’t, the game can get out of hand rather quickly.
In an NCAA Tournament run, the matchups matter more than anything else, and despite the fact the Zags are in a tough region, Gonzaga is well-poised for a tromp into the second weekend and perhaps the Final Four.
Getting past the “one game at a time mantra” and looking at a potential Sweet 16 matchup against No. 2 UCLA, Gonzaga is uniquely suited to battle Mick Cronin’s defensive-minded squad, and we need to look no further than the recent Saint Mary’s games for proof. UCLA owns the nation’s top defense and runs an efficient offense. Sort of like Saint Mary’s on steroids, and just a bit faster pace.
They are also missing Jaylen Clark, the 2023 Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year, for the rest of the season due to injury. The Bruins don’t shoot a lot of threes and they don’t take a lot of free throw attempts. Can this largely two-point-oriented offense score enough points while making sure the levee doesn’t break on defense?
A theoretical Elite Eight against UConn would be a phenomenally exciting game. Since Feb. 1, Barttovik.com ranks Gonzaga as the top team in the nation. No. 2? Why that would be the Huskies themselves. That No. 3 vs. No. 4 matchup to face whatever team emerges from the Midwest Region could very well be one of the best games of the tournament.
Or perhaps that Elite Eight matchup comes against Kansas, the defending national champions and one of the all-time great March institutions. The Zags have faced the Jayhawks before, but never on a stage this big. Drew Timme vs. Jalen Wilson? Sign me up.
To a certain extent, I’m going into this March Madness Tournament much more relaxed than in previous years. The pressure of rooting for a No. 1 seed is very real. The Zags can easily make the Final Four this season just as easily as they could miss it. Instead of watching in complete fear of losing a game, I can watch with enthusiasm rooting for the win.
The best sports time of the year kicks off tomorrow in full force. Go Zags.