Sorry haters, Gonzaga is about to take home its first national title
Alongside green beer, chirping birds and thoughts of warmth, negative narratives about Gonzaga and its perceived NCAA Tournament ineptitude are an annual spring ritual.
Surely you’re familiar. Heck, you might be the same person who passes off these hardheaded opinions as indisputable fact inside the office break room.
A few examples:
They haven’t played a quality opponent in months. How on earth are they battle tested?
If they played in the ACC, Big Ten, SEC or even the Big East, they would be a middling team.
When have they ever lived up to the hype?
In this time of flippant, often unfounded declarations, some would take the above suppositions as the gospel. It’s the old “fool me once” bias. However, those who live in reality disavow most accepted perspectives regarding Mark Few’s club, and understandably so.
If you’re an anti-Zags zealot, hold onto something. The truth could rock your fragile, little world. When it comes to Gonzaga’s NCAA Tournament efforts over the past four years, here are the cold, hard facts when compared to blue blood and other elite programs:
Gonzaga has appeared in the same number of Final Fours as Duke, North Carolina and Villanova and more than Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan St.
Gonzaga logged the same number of Elite Eight berths as Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and Villanova and more than Sparty.
Gonzaga has appeared in more Sweet 16s than all of them. That’s right, more than Duke, Kentucky, Michigan St., North Carolina and Villanova.
Only North Carolina and Villanova played in more national title games, both winning titles in the process (‘Nova, two).
Combined seed totals for each school during that stretch: Michigan St. (21), Gonzaga (18), Kentucky (12), Duke (9), North Carolina (8), Kansas (5) and Villanova (5). In other words, roads for the ‘Zags were hardly a waltz through Candyland.
Doubters will point to Gonzaga’s first weekend failures from 2010-2014, but recall just once over that span did it earn a No. 6 seed or higher. Many of those iterations were ill-equipped to carve deep tourney runs.
Still not convinced? Here are four reasons why I’m picking the Bulldogs to cut down the nets in Minneapolis:
1- Experience. Battle-tested and hardened, Josh Perkins and Co. have seen their fair share of wars. Two tourneys ago when the ‘Zags fell short in their national title quest against North Carolina, the point guard logged 35 minutes. Tillie, too, saw substantial action. Outside of Serbian import Filip Petrusev, who only sporadically springs off the bench, Gonzaga is an upperclassman dominated squad, a rarity in the one-and-done age. Junior and senior leadership is often quite valuable this time of year. Just ask Villanova head coach Jay Wright.
2 - Balance. When dissecting the Bulldogs with the naked eye, whether on paper or in person, they appear nearly invincible. They rank inside the top-20 nationally in adjusted offensive (1.22 points per possession) and defensive (0.94 pts/poss allowed) efficiency, one of seven teams to boast such a claim. Keep in mind, since 2002, national champions averaged 7.24 in offensive and 8.64 in defensive efficiency. Deadly from outside (36.5 3PT%), around the cup (62.3 2PT%), at the free-throw line (76.7%) and in transition, they’re a nearly uncontainable juggernaut. Variation is critical to success in the tournament and Gonzaga is a buffet of goodness.
3 - Versatility. Different from the 2017 team which featured double-wide Przemek Karnowski, the Bulldogs’ offensive schemes are more fluid. They are faster off ball screens which allows for quick-hitting rolls and shooters to generate cleaner looks. Defensively, they lose little speed and lateral movement on switches. Overall, the scheme helps maximize Gonzaga’s athleticism, which it exhibits everywhere. Rui Hachimura is a future NBA lottery pick and Brandon Clarke, who was criminally left on the Naismith finalist list, also has a bright pro future.
4 - Killian Tillie time. Considered by Few and analysts alike, Tillie is arguably the ‘Zags’ best multi-dimensional weapon. Not only can the 6-foot-10 Frenchman back down defenders in the post, he runs the floor smoothly, snags boards, stiffly guards and drills the occasional trey, at a 40 percent clip no less. His well-proportioned game often leaves the opposition shrug shouldered; “c’est la vie.” Brilliant in his return to the lineup during the West Coast Conference Tournament after missing extensive time with a foot injury, he didn’t skip a beat. His return and meaningful contributions are a luxury for a team already blessed with an embarrassment of riches. And don’t forget, Tillie wasn’t in uniform when Gonzaga knocked off a full-strength Duke earlier this season in Maui.
Many will unfairly downgrade Gonzaga after its 47-point misstep against rival St. Mary’s in the WCC finals, but every team, even the great ones, are entitled to an off night. It’s better to purge diseased basketball before the NCAA Tournament than during.
Refreshed and refocused, the ‘Zags enter the Madness as a No. 1 seed in the West region. Yes, some schools might have an advantage over it in a specific, mostly weightless area, but outside of Florida State and possibly Texas Tech, there are zero teams on the path to Minneapolis that will seriously challenge them. This club is better than the national runner up from 2017.
Enough with the cliches. Enough with the stigmas. The misunderstood studs from Spokane, currently +550 or +850 to win the whole shebang, are about to experience their well-deserved shining moment.
Bracket Flames: Tourney Cinderellas
Ignoring the obvious chalk on the top two lines, here are four additional underdogs (No. 3 seeds or lower) from each region that could steal the show:
Virginia Tech Hokies (24-8, No. 4 seed, East region)
Hours before Selection Sunday Buzz Williams took to his personal Twitter account and dropped a bombshell. It was a simple, though seismic, tweet featuring a photo collage of Justin Robinson with “He’s back” scribbled over it. The starting point guard’s return bolsters an already dangerous VT team. Dynamite without his services, it secured several notable wins, most noteworthy a five-point victory over Zion-less Duke in late February. The Hokies, now at full strength, have true Final Four upside. They blaze the nets at a 39.4 percent clip from three and rank top-25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Robinson, paint beast Kerry Blackshear, sharpshooter Ty Outlaw, slasher Ahmed Hill and fellow point man Nickeil Alexander-Walker comprise a formidable bunch. Depth remains an issue, but the Hokies’ consistent conversations at the free-throw line and crisp ball movement signal a deep run is inevitable. An eventual rematch with Duke in the Sweet 16 is on the horizon. Don’t be surprised if the overlooked ACC rep takes the Devils down again. Ranked No. 11 overall according to KenPom, the balanced Hokies are about to catch fire.
Wofford Terriers (29-4, No. 7 seed, Midwest region)
If you’re searching for this year’s Loyola-Chicago, look no further than Wofford. The best chance to channel Sister Jean’s magic, the Terriers certainly earned their Pupperonis throughout the season. Though they failed to topple Goliaths North Carolina, Kansas, Oklahoma and Mississippi State in non-conference action, the challenging schedule undoubtedly provided an assist once they entered SoCon play. Unblemished since mid-December, Wofford deluges teams with a steady stream of outside shots. As a unit, it shoots an obscene 41.6 percent totaling close to 40 percent of its points on long balls. Overall, it tallied 1.19 points per possession, well over the 1.04 Division I average. Fletcher Magee, who is one of the all-time leading long distance gunners in NCAA history, has Steph Curry tendencies. His quick trigger, supreme confidence and electric efficiency can takeover games. Flanked wonderfully by versatile Nate Hoover and an effective frontcourt spearheaded by bruiser Cameron Jackson, Magee and Co. will be extremely difficult to eliminate, though physical interior clubs could prove problematic. Still, Wofford’s juggernaut characteristics, decent depth and serviceable size say it’s not your rudimentary mid-major. Knowing the propensity for No. 2 seeds to fall in the Round of 32, Spartanburg’s spirited denizens could soon taste sweetness. Beware, Kentucky.
Oregon Ducks (23-12, No. 12 seed, South region)
Similar to a Bill Walton broadcast carpet ride, the Ducks’ season was filled with unpredictability. A devastating injury to prized freshman Bol Bol nine games in sent them into a tailspin. But Peyton Pritchard’s persistence combined with the emergence of role players like Ehab Amin and Will Richardson exhumed Oregon’s once deceased NCAA Tournament hopes from the grave. Undefeated since Feb. 28, the Ducks are flying high. Their steady buckets stream and rigid zone routinely handcuffed clubs down the stretch. Checking in at No. 20 or better in defensive efficiency (0.92 pts/poss allowed), three-point percentage D, blocks percentage and steals percentage, its consistent denials are why Oregon isn’t some Pac-12 pushover. Most importantly, its draw was a favorable one from a play style perspective. Wisconsin, its opening round opponent, is married to a half-court centered scheme. So are likely future foes in Kansas St. and Virginia. Yes, the Pac-12 was rotten this season, but the Ducks are hardly foie gras. Defense always travels and Oregon has the look of a second weekend team.
New Mexico St. Aggies (30-4, No. 12 seed, Midwest region)
An advanced metrics darling, the Aggies, who rank No. 49 overall according to KenPom, are not your typical docile WAC representative. Chris Jans’ bunch is a voracious zombie horde that features a legit 12-man rotation, each player logging significant minutes per game. His hockey-like strategy is not only unique but effective, a cunning plan that often pulverizes the opposition to a pulp. The Aggies’ rotation of fresh talent explains why computers love them. So does their collective performance. Top-10 nationally in defensive and offensive rebounding percentage, New Mexico St. pounds the paint and converts numerous second-chance opportunities. Toss in its carpet bombs from outside — 46.4 percent of its shots come from distance — and it’s a hyper-efficient formula. Not to be outdone, the Aggies also boast competency on defense giving up 0.99 points per possession on the year. Pool it all together, Eli Chuha and associates possess the goods for a possible Sweet 16 appearance, especially given the path. Auburn will be a trendy selection after its riveting run through the SEC Tournament, but its lackluster three-point defense and questionable rebounding present New Mexico St. with a ripe opportunity. Potential second-round tango, Kansas, is equally vulnerable. Among No. 12 seeds, it might have the best shot of lasting into the second weekend.
Liberty Flames (28-6, No. 12 seed, East region)
Give me Liberty or … give me no other No. 12-plus seed in this year’s field. Presumably the ghost of Patrick Henry’s favorite college squad, the Atlantic Sun conference tourney champs are battle tested, rugged and highly flammable on offense. They tuck inside the top-15 nationally in multiple categories including effective field-goal percentage and two-point percentage offense. Scottie James, who has a WWE Intercontinental belt in his future, is one of the nation’s most efficient paint patrollers. His fiery competitiveness, rebounding knack and impactful scoring around the basket (70.3 2PT%) will be tough for most to counteract. Complements Lovell Cabbil, Elijah Cuffee and Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz, who collectively net an unreal 44.8 percent from three, can also fill it up. Not to be outdone, the Flames are a force on defense, surrendering 0.99 points per possession on the year. James will need to stay out of foul trouble — frontcourt depth is a substantial concern for Liberty — but if treys are falling, Ritchie McKay’s kids have the makeup to compete. Since 1985, No. 12 seeds have won 34.5 percent of their opening round matchups. This March, it’s not outlandish to believe the Flames pack the most 12-over-5 spark.
Fun facts/trends about the Big Dance:
• At least one No. 12 seed has advanced beyond the opening round 15 of the past 18 years. In the second round No. 12s are 20-31 (39.2%) all-time.
• Though the 12-5 matchup gets all the press, No. 11 seeds have actually logged more success. Since the field expanded in 1985, 11s have ousted No. 6s 37.1 percent of the time. Three marched out of Round 1 last year.
• UMBC improbably rewrote the history books in 2018 becoming the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1. You know No. 1 seed Virginia, the Retrievers’ victim, is motivated to silence its doubters.
• Since 1985, No. 13 seeds have survived the opening round 20.6 percent of the time; No. 14s 15.4 percent; No. 15s 5.9 percent. Middle Tennessee St.’s bracket-shredding take down of Michigan St. in 2016 was the last 15-over-2.
• First Four winners have had considerable success. In the eight years of their existence, one has reached the Round of 32 every year, including Syracuse in 2018. Four of those eight years one marched on to the Sweet 16. Dylan Windler and Belmont have the best odds of continuing the trend.
Bug “Bracket Brad” on Twitter. Follow him @YahooNoise.