Since its first Elite Eight run in 1999, Gonzaga basketball has been the modern-day pace-setter by which all mid-major conference programs are measured. And yet, the Zags are still without a Final Four appearance, a milestone other mid-majors George Mason, Butler, VCU and Wichita State have reached in the last decade.
The 2014-’15 Zags came the closest of any of Mark Few’s squads, falling in the Elite Eight to eventual national champion Duke. There’s certainly no shame in losing to the champs, but Gonzaga perhaps could have avoided the South Regional and regular-season ACC champion Duke altogether with a beefier resume.
Don’t blame Few for the Zags having the nation’s No. 75-ranked strength of schedule last season, though: the head coach has worked tirelessly to craft one of the nation’s toughest nonconference schedules every year.
In 2014-’15, the docket included games against UCLA, St. John’s, SMU, Georgia and Arizona, all of which the Zags won save the road trip to Arizona — and even then, Gonzaga took the Wildcats to overtime, nearly snapping their home win streak at the McKale Center.
No, nonconference scheduling certainly didn’t prevent 31-2 Gonzaga from landing a No. 1 seed, or remaining in the West bracket. The West Coast Conference slate hinders the Zags on Selection Sunday, but also has a negative impact on Gonzaga beyond with its preparedness for the Big Dance.
The grind of the NCAA Tournament tests a team’s ability to beat one elite team, turn around in 48 hours or less, and do it again. It doesn’t matter if their styles are contrasting, nor the toll the previous round took.
A team like Duke, facing the rigors of the ACC schedule, is hardened for such a grind come March. Gonzaga doesn’t typically get that from WCC competition, and the nearly three months the Zags spend feasting on a cupcake-rich diet makes for a tough transition back into the kind of slate Few lays out for his team in November and December.
To wit, Gonzaga played six conference games against opponents with an RPI worse than 200, and four against teams with an RPI of 244 or worse, playing the likes of Santa Clara, Pacific and Loyola Marymount.
Contrast that with Duke, which played–after New Year’s Day–six games against opponents with an RPI worse than 100, and just one against a team with an RPI worse than 200. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils faced as many Top 20 RPI competitors in that time as Gonzaga saw sub-200 foes.
Now, Duke is an extreme example because the ACC was demonstrably the best conference in college basketball last season. But of the other three 2015 Final Four participants, all were facing as many Top 50 opponents as Gonzaga was facing below-200.
And though the aforementioned lot of mid-major conference teams reached Final Fours, only Butler in 2009-’10 came out of a league as weak as the WCC has been below its top few teams.
Perhaps it’s with that in mind that Gonzaga has played a prominent nonconference opponent midway through the WCC schedule in recent years. However, banking on that one game as a tournament appetizer is not always guaranteed: late-season foe Memphis struggled in 2015 and missed the NCAA Tournament.
Certainly the WCC is improved at the very top from a decade ago, thanks to the rise of Saint Mary’s. The Gaels are regular contenders to participate in March Madness, and have featured some of the best talent in the West over recent years.
With Cleveland Cavaliers guard Matt Dellavedova advancing, this marks the third consecutive NBA Finals in which one of the former Saint Mary’s Australian pipeline players participated. Patty Mills was on the San Antonio Spurs in 2013 and 2014 Finals rosters.
That level of talent, combined with college standouts like Omar Samhan, means the Gaels test the Zags virtually any time the two meet.
Adding Brigham Young in 2011-’12 was another huge boon, giving the WCC three viable NCAA Tournament teams in any given year. The Cougars beat the Zags in Spokane last season, ostensibly knocking Gonzaga from its one-seed perch and likely out of the West.
Nevertheless, that’s the level of competition Gonzaga needs on a more consistent basis in January and February, in order to make the program’s deepest ever run come March.
Pepperdine made strides considerable in head coach Marty Wilson’s fourth year at the helm, winning 17 games and playing Gonzaga tough in each of their two meetings. The Waves roster was bereft of seniors in 2014-’15, so expect an experienced Pepperdine team to improve further in 2015-’16.
Following Pepperdine’s template, San Diego reached out to a former player to help the program improve when it hired Lamont Smith to replace Bill Grier.
A former Few assistant, Grier began to tap into San Diego’s lofty potential late last decade, beating his mentor in the 2008 WCC Tournament to send the Toreros to the NCAA Tournament. USD even advanced to the Round of 32.
Grier’s tenure was sadly side-tracked by a point-shaving incident from which the Toreros never recovered, but Smith arrives from New Mexico with recent proof that USD can be a force in the WCC.
Similarly, Pacific was among the forerunners of mid-major programs last decade, and competitive its first year moving into the WCC from the Big West (2013-14). The Tigers took a huge step back last season, but the program has a proven ability to compete at an NCAA Tournament level.
An improved WCC might make Gonzaga’s road to more two-loss regular-season records more challenging, but it could be the biggest key to getting Few to his first Final Four.