When Gonzaga stumbled at unranked Santa Clara last Thursday night, it didn’t just send the Zags tumbling out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in seven-plus years.
It also put another hard-earned, more significant streak in increased peril.
Ever since 1999, when then-head coach Dan Monson launched Gonzaga with an improbable Elite Eight run, the Zags have been an NCAA tournament fixture. Assistant coach Mark Few took over after Monson left for Minnesota that offseason and led Gonzaga to the NCAA tournament every ensuing season.
Overlooked recruits fueled Gonzaga’s first Cinderella runs. An influx of prized international prospects and high-level transfers helped the Zags level up. Over the past decade, Gonzaga even began sprinkling in McDonald’s All-Americans, paving the way for eight straight Sweet 16 appearances and runs to the 2017 and 2021 national title games.
Twenty-four consecutive NCAA tournament bids is college basketball’s third-longest active streak, trailing only Kansas (33) and Michigan State (25). No other Division I program has currently been to more than eight NCAA tournaments in a row. The likes of Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina have all missed March Madness once or more in the past four seasons.
At 11-5 overall and 2-1 in the WCC, Gonzaga is on pace to be no better than a bubble team this season. Some major mock brackets have the Zags outside the field of 68. Even optimistic ones project Gonzaga as no better than a No. 9 seed.
The cause for concern stems from the fact that Gonzaga enters the second half of January with an 0-4 record in Quadrant 1 games. The three power-conference teams the Zags have beaten — Syracuse (11-5), USC (8-9) and UCLA (7-10) — don’t crack the top 75 in the NCAA’s NET rankings.
More worrisome for Gonzaga is that the WCC schedule doesn’t offer many chances for marquee wins. Saint Mary’s (13-6) staggered out of the starting blocks and hasn’t fully recovered. San Francisco (14-4) has crept inside the top 50 in most metrics but lacks the resume-boosting wins to validate that. Only a Feb. 10 non-league game at No. 8 Kentucky gives Gonzaga a significant opportunity to help its cause.
For Gonzaga to earn an at-large NCAA tournament bid this March, the Zags might need to win at Rupp Arena or be near-perfect the rest of WCC play. Otherwise, their hopes of a 25th straight NCAA bid would hinge on winning the WCC tournament.
How did Gonzaga go from 30-plus wins a year to the bubble? Why are the Zags enduring a down season after nearly a quarter century as a model of consistency?
The explanation starts with the talent they lost after their national title window slammed shut with an Elite Eight loss to eventual national champion UConn last March. Multi-time All-American Drew Timme took his mustache, headband and arsenal of post moves to the pro level afterward. So did standout forward Julian Strawther. Top-five NBA draft picks Jalen Suggs and Chet Holmgren had already departed the previous two years.
The hallmark of the Gonzaga program has always been its ability to find ways to reload with fresh talent, but that has become more difficult since 2021 when Arizona hired away Few’s longtime top assistant.
It isn’t just that Tommy Lloyd was college basketball’s finest international recruiter, bringing the likes of Domantas Sabonis, Rui Hachimura, Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos to Spokane. Lloyd was also a well-rounded coach who reeled in elite transfers and high school prospects and was instrumental in game planning and player development.
The impact of Lloyd’s absence is finally apparent this season. For the first time in at least a decade, the Zags don’t have dudes. There isn’t a surefire NBA player on the roster, nor is there sufficient quality depth in the backcourt.
With five of last season’s top eight players departing, Few and his staff raided the transfer portal for reinforcements. They landed sharpshooting Big Sky player of the year Steele Venters from Eastern Washington, proven back-to-the-basket scorer Graham Ike from Wyoming and coveted point guard Ryan Nembhard from Creighton. That trio joined a roster that included returning starters Anton Watson and Nolan Hickman, skilled big men Ben Gregg and Braden Huff and incoming freshman shooting guard Dusty Stromer.
It was a promising enough core to earn Gonzaga a preseason No. 11 ranking.
Then Venters tore an ACL in his right knee days before the Zags’ season opener.
The loss of Venters has robbed Gonzaga of a projected starter who likely would have been the team’s top perimeter shooter. The 6-foot-7 wing averaged 15.3 points as a junior at Eastern Washington and is a career 40.7% 3-point marksman.
Gonzaga would have been better equipped to weather the Venters injury if it still had guards Hunter Sallis and Dominick Harris, the rare ballyhooed recruits who didn’t develop as expected in Spokane. Sallis is now averaging a team-high 18.0 points per game at Wake Forest. Harris is leading Loyola Marymount in scoring and shooting 41% from behind the arc.
Without Sallis and Harris, the ripple effect from the loss of Venters has been massive. Gonzaga is so thin on the perimeter that Few is reluctant to remove either Nembhard or Hickman during tight games. They’ve both played 39 or more minutes a half dozen times apiece.
Stromer is the only other healthy scholarship perimeter player on the roster. When he rests or spells Harris or Sallis for a few minutes, it forces the 6-foot-8 Watson, the team’s leading scorer, to play out of position on the wing instead of at power forward.
Gonzaga has held up OK defensively despite its lack of perimeter depth, but this is easily Few’s worst perimeter shooting team. The Zags shoot 31.7% as a team from 3-point range, 251st nationally. In their five losses, their shooting from behind the arc drops to an appalling 19.8%.
Can Gonzaga overcome poor shooting and nonexistent perimeter depth to get back to the NCAA tournament? Time will tell, but the guess here is yes. The Zags have multiple paths, whether it’s seizing a massive opportunity at Kentucky, bulldozing their way through the rest of conference play or salvaging their season at the WCC tournament in Las Vegas.
The more pressing concern might be for the program’s longterm future beyond this season.
Gonzaga is still looking for its first 2024 commitment after swinging and missing on priority recruiting targets Zoom Diallo, Asa Newell and Chase McCarty, among others. That must change in a hurry or seasons like this one will become the norm for the Zags rather than the exception.
THE COUNTDOWN: LONGEST ACTIVE NCAA TOURNAMENT STREAKS
5. Houston/Tennessee (5) Imagine telling someone before Kelvin Sampson came to Houston that the Cougars would make this list. Houston has won 29.3 games per year since 2018 and is off to a 14-2 start this season.
4. Purdue (8) Put an asterisk on this streak, and not just because Purdue has failed to advance beyond the round of 64 four times during it. The Boilermakers also staggered to a 16-15 record in 2020 and would not have made the NCAA tournament had it not been canceled as a result of the COVID pandemic.
3. Gonzaga (24) The Zags don’t just hold college basketball’s third-longest active NCAA tournament streak. They’ve also been to eight consecutive Sweet 16s, twice as many as any other program in the nation.
2. Michigan State (25) The Spartans have participated in every NCAA tournament since Tom Izzo’s third season as head coach. That streak is surprisingly in some jeopardy this season with preseason top-five Michigan State (10-7, 2-4) flailing and struggling to provide enough support to star guard Tyson Walker.
1. Kansas (33) This streak would be six years longer had the NCAA not put Kansas on probation for the 1988-89 season as a result of recruiting violations. The Jayhawks have since been college basketball’s most consistent winner, claiming at least a share of 24 conference titles and never receiving worse than a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament.
MATCHUPS NOT TO MISS (all times Eastern)
Purdue at Indiana, Tuesday, 7 p.m. (Peacock)
Baylor at Kansas State, Tuesday, 8 p.m. (ESPN+)
Utah State at New Mexico, Tuesday, 10:30 p.m. (FS1)
Creighton at UConn, Wednesday, 7 p.m. (FS1)
Texas Tech at Houston, Wednesday, 9 p.m. (ESPNU)
Marquette at St. John’s, Saturday, 12 p.m. (FOX)
Creighton at Seton Hall, Saturday, 12 p.m. (FS1)
Alabama at Tennessee, Saturday, 2 p.m. (ESPN2)
UConn at Villanova, Saturday, 8 p.m. (FOX)
GET A LOAD OF THIS
Utah State extended the nation’s longest active win streak on Saturday in the most improbable fashion imaginable.
The Aggies needed a rare five-point play with 8.4 seconds to go to take their only lead of the game over UNLV and escape with an 87-86 victory.
A FIVE POINT PLAY FOR UTAH STATE??? pic.twitter.com/H5zz6AGlnv
— Mr Matthew CFB (@MrMatthew_CFB) January 13, 2024
Utah State guard Darius Brown nailed a right-wing 3-pointer to trim UNLV’s lead to one at the same time as referees whistled a foul away from the ball on the Rebels. Aggies forward Great Osobor then sank the game-tying and game-winning free throws.
The unlikely victory is the latest chapter in a miracle season for Utah State. An Aggies team that did not return a single player who scored a point last season now boasts a 16-1 record and a No. 16 ranking in the latest AP Top 25.
Highly ranked teams who went on the road last week often returned home with newfound humility.
AP Top 10 teams went 3-8 in road matchups against unranked teams, the bloodiest week for top-10 teams in those spots since February 1992. In all, Top 25 teams lost a total of 15 games last week against unranked opponents.
The knee-jerk reaction from many has been to cite that as proof that college basketball has no elite teams this season or that the NCAA tournament will be especially wide-open and chaotic. That may turn out to be true, but it’s a little early to make that proclamation in mid-January.
Chaos seemed like the only certainty in 2016 when an unprecedented six teams held the No. 1 spot in the AP Top 25. Then the NCAA tournament produced a title game pitting a pair of tradition-rich No. 1 seeds, Villanova and North Carolina.
The same narrative took hold in February 2022 when the AP poll’s top six teams all lost on the same day. That year’s Final Four included four little-known minnows: Kansas, North Carolina, Villanova and Duke.
ONE LAST THING
Sports fans in the state of Michigan had another reason to smile Monday afternoon. The Fab Five reunited to watch Michigan beat Ohio State, marking the first time they’ve been together at Crisler Arena since their playing days in the early 1990s.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) January 15, 2024
Chris Webber’s appearance was especially notable because it offered further proof that his feud with his alma mater and his fellow Fab Five members has cooled. The NCAA banned Webber from associating with Michigan basketball for a decade as a result of money he accepted from Michigan booster Ed Martin. Webber then declined to attend a Fab Five reunion or participate in ESPN’s 2011 Fab Five documentary, generating more hurt feelings.
Webber, Jalen Rose, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King sat courtside to watch Michigan (7-10) snap a five-game losing streak at the expense of its biggest rival. The quartet hugged Michigan coach and fellow Fab Five member Juwan Howard as he exited the floor at halftime.
For the embattled Howard, the show of support at a difficult time was especially meaningful. This season began with Howard away from his team while recovering from a September heart procedure. Howard has since drawn criticism for Michigan’s on-court struggles and for reports that he engaged in a screaming match with popular strength coach Jon Sanderson.
Asked about the presence of the rest of the Fab Five after the game, Howard told FOX analyst Jim Jackson, “That felt great, man.”
“There’s nothing like having your family step in, knowing that we [are] going through a tough time,” Howard added. “For them to be here to support us, it was truly uplifting.”