Upset losses, soft schedule shrinks Gonzaga’s margin for error in WCC play

There will be more pressure than usual on Gonzaga this season once it begins WCC play next Saturday.

Since the Zags haven't accomplished a whole lot in non-league play, they likely won't have much margin for error during the conference season if they want to land an at-large NCAA tournament bid rather than relying on winning the WCC tournament.

Though Saturday's 72-62 loss to Kansas State only drops Gonzaga's record to a respectable 10-2, a closer look reveals that the level of competition the Zags have faced is unusually weak compared to previous seasons. Not only are losses to the Wildcats and Dayton hardly inspiring, the best teams Gonzaga has beaten are middling West Virginia and Arkansas and small-conference power New Mexico State.

Gonzaga still has one more chance for a marquee non-league win at Memphis on Feb. 8, no easy task considering it's a true road game at a top 20 opponent with the perimeter athleticism that has typically hurt the Zags. It's way too early to know how many league victories Gonzaga would need to make the tournament if it also loses to Memphis, but it's certainly conceivable that a 14-4 WCC record and a league tournament loss would leave the Zags sweating on Selection Sunday.

It's easy to blame Mark Few for not assembling a difficult enough non-league schedule this season, but as always with scheduling, it's not that simple. Colorado State is rebuilding after losing five starters, Kansas State and West Virginia appear headed for down seasons by those programs' high standards and the Maui Invitational didn't provide the pop that Few was expecting.

Had Gonzaga avoided an opening-round upset against Dayton in Maui, the Zags would have met Big 12 power Baylor in the semifinals and either No. 2 Syracuse or Cal on the final day of the tournament. Even losses in those games would have been more valuable from an RPI perspective than consolation bracket wins against Division II Chaminade and Arkansas.

Gonzaga has the ability to perform well enough in WCC play to make all this moot by late February, but some concerns arose in Saturday's loss to Kansas State.

The most notable one is that starting big man Sam Dower left with a first-half hip injury suffered when he fell hard to the floor on a dunk and did not return. Considering the lack of interior depth Gonzaga has behind Dower and Przemek Karnowski, that could be very costly if the senior is sidelined for very long, especially with a date with fellow WCC contender Saint Mary's looming on Jan. 2.

Also concerning is Gonzaga's perimeter defense, seemingly an annual issue for the Zags. While Gary Bell is an effective perimeter defender, Few's decision to play Kevin Pangos and David Stockton together more often than previous years makes the Zags more susceptible to teams with multiple big, athletic wings.

Still, with an elite point guard, a deep backcourt and two quality big men, Gonzaga has plenty of firepower to get on a roll in January and February. The Zags are going to have to avoid lapses in league play, however, because this season, they can't afford them.