Have you heard on the one about the little engine that could? The one that keeps repeating I think I can, I think I can, as it tries to pull a heavy load over a big mountain?
It could just as easily apply to the Gonzaga Bulldogs, who are trying to do what they’ve come close to but never done before, which is win a national championship with their men’s basketball team.
Over the last 20 years, the Zags have all but defined what it means to be a perennial contender from a mid-major conference. What they’ve been able to accomplish, mostly under coach Mark Few, but also a little under predecessor Dan Monson, is truly remarkable.
Mark Few took over as head coach of the Bulldogs in 1999, but in reality he has been with the program since 1989, when he started as a graduate assistant. Talk about a company man. Mark Few is Gonzaga. Gonzaga is Mark Few.
All Few has done as head coach at Gonzaga is win over 82% of his games. They’ve gone to the NCAA tournament every year of his head coaching career. This year will mark his 21st year in a row going to the big dance!
Gonzaga has sat atop the AP top 25 poll for the past two weeks. They’ve just wrapped up their regular season with a 29-2 record, including winning their last 20 consecutive games. They’ve gone undefeated within the West Coast conference and undefeated at home.
Now, since the Zags do play in a so-called mid-major conference, which doesn’t have another ranked team this year, it’s probably important to point out a couple of caveats emptor, before, you know, you run out and buy a keg of kool-aid or attempt to purchase a seat on the Zaggie bandwagon.
They haven’t played a truly good team since mid-December when they lost on the road against North Carolina. That game followed the only other loss this season, a neutral-site tilt against Tennessee in Phoenix.
Their biggest win of the season came against Duke, though they only beat them by two points and the game was played in Maui. If there’s a place further away from Tobacco Road, I’m not sure what it would be.
They also squeaked by the Washington Huskies by two points in a game that could have gone either way at the end.
So if you want to nitpick the Bulldogs, I guess that’s how you’d do it. If I were a fan, those things wouldn’t bother me one bit. You play the teams on your schedule, mostly the ones in your conference. You win as many as you can and go from there.
So what is the postseason looking like for Gonzaga? Let’s start with this weekend when they will travel to Las Vegas to play in the WCC tournament at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
Gonzaga is the number one seed for the tournament, and thus does not have to play until the semifinal round on March 11th at 6pm (ESPN). They are the overwhelming favorite to take home the WCC tournament crown for the seventh straight year, and anything less will represent a big disappointment, though it shouldn’t have a major effect on their NCAA tournament seeding.
Let’s assume Gonzaga takes home another WCC tournament crown. Where should they find themselves on March 17th, Selection Sunday? There’s a distinct possibility that they could find themselves as the number one overall seed in the tournament. But, they just as easily could slide back down the mountain a nudge, and here’s why.
Really what you want to know about is something called NET, which stands for NCAA Evaluation Tool. It’s the new rubric the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee is using to rank teams. NET replaces Rating Percentage Index, or RPI, which was the system in place previously.
Though the actual NET algorithm is secret, it relies on such factors as strength of schedule, whether a game is played at home, away or on a neutral site, offensive and defensive efficiency, and whether a win or loss qualifies as “good” or “bad”.
Long story short, Gonzaga currently sits at number one in NET, followed closely by Virginia and Duke. Since Gonzaga’s regular season is already over—the major conferences, including the ACC that Virginia and Duke play in, aren’t—those other schools still have opportunities to gain more signature wins, and thus rise in NET, whereas Gonzaga really does not, with the exception of presumably playing and beating a team like St. Mary’s in the WCC tournament championship game.
Bottom line, the Zags are incredible this year and stand as good a chance as anyone to play for all the marbles. And what if they make it over the mountain? What lies on the other side?
Friends, I’ve been there. Hot wings are in endless supply. As is Northwest IPA. Every day is a new parade. It’s one big constant party.