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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Recent losses leave Gonzaga in a precarious position as March approaches

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Mark Few (USATSI)

The possibility of failing to reach the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for a fifth straight season is the least of Gonzaga's worries right now.

Three losses in their last five games have left the Zags in tenuous enough position that they should be concerned about simply making the field at all.

Though Gonzaga owns a gaudy 23-6 record, a solid No. 29 RPI and a comfortable lead in the WCC title race, a closer examination of the Zags' resumé reveals some glaring holes. They've suffered two losses to teams well outside the RPI top 100. They haven't defeated a single team that's certain to make the NCAA tournament. Their most noteworthy victories came against WCC rival BYU and fringe bubble teams West Virginia and Arkansas.

Gonzaga can render any concerns about its NCAA tournament candidacy moot by winning the WCC tournament next month, but the lead-up to Selection Sunday may be anxious for the Zags if they fail to secure an automatic bid.

Most mock brackets currently project Gonzaga as a No. 9 or 10 seed, but the Zags would have to suffer a loss in the WCC tournament for an at-large bid to be in play. They also have a pair of tricky road games left at Pacific and Saint Mary's to close out the regular season.

It's difficult to project exactly what Gonzaga needs to do in its remaining games to assure itself of an NCAA tournament bid, but it's safe to say the final two regular season games are critical for the Zags. Would they make the field if they beat Pacific and Saint Mary's, won their first two WCC tournament games and lost in the title game? Very likely. Would they make the field if they drop one of the next two road games and lose in the WCC tournament? That's far less certain.

How did Gonzaga get to this point one year after going 32-3 and earning its first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament? The departure of frontcourt standouts Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris has certainly been a factor, as has the graduation of glue guy extraordinaire Mike Hart.

Gonzaga remains an efficient offensive team thanks to the interior scoring of Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski and the 3-point shooting of guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell. Where the Zags struggle, however, is defensively and on the glass.

Since neither Pangos nor David Stockton are long or quick enough to be effective perimeter defenders, Gonzaga doesn't force many turnovers and is susceptible to dribble penetration when facing teams with multiple high-major-caliber guards. The Zags also often have to go small because they lack a proven third big man, which has cut into their effectiveness on the offensive glass and enabled other teams to hurt them on the boards.

Gonzaga would still probably be a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament right now were it not for a couple of costly non-conference slip-ups.

A Maui Invitational quarterfinal loss to Dayton sent the Zags into the consolation bracket, where they faced Division II Chaminade and middling Arkansas instead of getting cracks at potential profile-boosting wins against Baylor and either Syracuse or Cal. Then in its last chance for a marquee win earlier this month, Gonzaga frittered away a late lead at Memphis and lost 60-54.

Couple that loss with WCC setbacks at BYU and San Diego last week, and the Zags are now in a precarious spot.

Losing in the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament year after year has been a source of frustration at Gonzaga, but not making the field for the first time since 1998 would be far, far worse.

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