If an opponent called Complacency indeed is the most significant challenge remaining on the Gonzaga Bulldogs’ schedule, that poor victim is taking a beating that would lead even the most ardent masochist to signal surrender.
Complacency? Gonzaga by 30 over BYU.
Complacency? Gonzaga by 30 over San Francisco.
Complacency? Gonzaga by 48 over Saint Mary’s.
How is this a discussion? The Bulldogs have not relaxed for an instant. They are winning their West Coast Conference games by an average of 28 points, every single one of them decided by a double-figure margin. They have not lost in 66 days, and their winning streak stands at 16 games.
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They own the No. 1 offense in Division I, ripping off nearly 1.3 points per possession on average. Their defense ranks 24th in efficiency, seventh in field goal percentage allowed, fifth in blocked shots. Star forward Rui Hachimura is averaging 20.3 points and 6.5 rebounds. Center Brandon Clarke is the nation’s No. 3 shot-blocker. They appear to be as motivated as a starving polar bear.
And yet there is expressed concern that rolling through the WCC will hinder Gonzaga when it arrives in the NCAA Tournament, possibly as a No. 1 seed. How much evidence do we need for this to go away? Apparently, more than we have now.
But we shall present the case, anyway.
Gonzaga has advanced in 10 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, dating to 2009. Know who else can say that? Not Duke, not Kentucky, not North Carolina, not Michigan State. Only Kansas has a longer run. Gonzaga has appeared in four consecutive Sweet 16s, dating to 2015. Know who else can say that? Not anyone. There have been only 15 such streaks in the 34-year history of the expanded bracket.
In that stretch of Sweet 16 appearances, Gonzaga has played only five opponents combined after Jan. 1 that eventually appeared in the NCAA Tournament. A sixth, SMU in 2016, would have been a tournament team but was serving a one-year postseason ban when it played the Zags. And yet Gonzaga has gone 12-4 in March Madness games in that period, including a narrow loss to North Carolina in the 2017 NCAA Championship game.
We should be well past the idea that competing in the WCC holds back the Zags, as there is similar evidence that playing in stronger conferences — even dominating stronger conferences — does not assure NCAA Tournament success.
Virginia closed last season by winning 23 of its final 24 regular-season games, winning both the ACC regular season (by a four-game margin) and the ACC Tournament (by defeating two top-15 teams in the KenPom rankings on consecutive days).
The Cavaliers’ victims included the No. 8 KenPom team twice (North Carolina), the No. 14 team twice (Clemson) and the No. 3 team (Duke) on the road.
And then they went into the NCAA Tournament and lost by 20 points to a 16 seed.
Being “tournament tested” either works or it doesn’t.
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In fact, the whole notion of being “tested” tends to be fungible, fitting whatever narrative the critic in question wants to use against the program being targeted.
When Pitt was struggling most years under Jamie Dixon to advance in the NCAA Tournament — the notable exception being the Panthers’ Elite Eight run in 2009 — Dixon often was scolded for lining up soft non-conference schedules that allegedly did not prepare the team for March. Never mind that those non-league opponents prepared Pitt to win double-figure conference games in eight consecutive seasons and claim the league title in 2004 and 2011, or that the games that directly preceded the NCAAs were those in the annually demanding Big East.
For a time, Gonzaga was scheduling tough non-conference games in the middle of WCC play to provide an ostensibly more rigorous test than what the WCC typically provides, including a series of games against the Memphis Tigers. In 2013, the Zags played a mid-January game at Butler and absorbed one of only two regular-season losses by a single point on a buzzer-beater by BU’s Roosevelt Jones. That loss didn’t prevent them from earning a No. 1 seed, but it also didn’t stop them from blowing a big late lead in the NCAA second round against Wichita State.
They actually have done better in the NCAAs since discontinuing the practice of scheduling such games.
Gonzaga has been a member of the WCC throughout its ascent to national powerhouse status. That has sometimes created obstacles for the Zags, as the difficulty — and, in some years, impossibility — of gaining quality wins in routine conference play has led to lower seeds than the team might have been able to earn in another conference.
In 2016, for instance, a developing Gonzaga team finished 15-3 in WCC play and defeated Washington, UConn and Tennessee in non-league games but dropped games to Arizona, Texas A&M and UCLA by a combined 11 points. The Zags also fell to SMU by nine. They earned an automatic bid (that maybe was necessary to get them into the field) and were assigned a No. 11 seed. But in the tournament, they blew out both Seton Hall of the Big East and Utah of the Pac-12, winning by a combined 39 points.
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Seeding should not be a problem this season, with Gonzaga owning a 25-2 record and sitting at No. 2 in the NCAA’s NET rankings.
“The thing that doesn’t get talked about enough with Gonzaga is that they play for each other, as good if not better than anybody they play against,” San Diego coach Sam Scholl told reporters after the Toreros’ impressive performance in a 79-67 loss Saturday to the Zags. “You can see it in everything they do: the way they celebrate for each other’s baskets, the way they talk to each other on the floor, the way they come in and out on timeouts, the way they huddle. That for me is the most impressive thing. They’ve got an unbelievable amount of talent, but man do they play for each other, more than a lot of people.”
Complacency doesn’t seem to be a problem, either.
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