The word on the street in college basketball, 2019-20, is that there are no great teams, only some good ones. It’s not breaking news that Gonzaga seems to be one of those, but it is slightly startling to see GU among the teams at the forefront of the discourse this season.
Winning, of course, is hardly new to Gonzaga, but there is something that distinguishes the current Zags from their recent predecessors – and probably all of them – in school history.
They’re soldiering through adversity and winning on the road, in some of the toughest environments in the West.
Gonzaga’s 84-80 win at Arizona the other night got me to wondering: In what years did GU assemble its most convincing non-league resume, and when have the Zags acquitted themselves better on the road than this year, with victories in Tucson and at Washington?
I scoured the decade starting with the 2009-10 season, so we have 10 years of results. I used Ken Pomeroy’s authoritative, final-season rankings, and in that, there’s a bit of unfinished business – as in, how do the rankings play out for the rest of the 2019-20 season? It could be that Oregon, Arizona or Washington turns out vastly overrated, and that would skew what we might believe to be true now.
Here’s the rub: Over the years, the vast, vast majority of Gonzaga’s resume has been worked up at neutral sites. Last year, for instance, the Zags had the prodigious victory over No. 4 (KenPom) Duke in Maui, and their best wins otherwise were over Washington (48) and Creighton (55).
It’s likely that when the dust settles, this year’s 11-1 Gonzaga outfit will have accomplished more in non-league road games than at any time in history. Arizona is ranked No. 15 in KenPom this week, Washington No. 50, and if that sounds relatively modest, it’s more than I could unearth in looking at the past decade’s worth of GU resumes. (Besides, it’s my guess that Washington’s number improves as a young team matures, even as it’s possible that Arizona’s worsens somewhat – although that’s also a young team.)
Over a decade’s worth of true road games – we’re not including neutral or not-so-neutral courts – I could find only five times in which the Zags have beaten a KenPom top-60 team out of conference. The most notable such win was over Oklahoma State in the No. 1-seed year of 2012-13, when the Cowboys finished No. 24. The others were UCLA, 2014-15 (40th); Xavier, 2011-12 (53rd); Creighton, last year (55th) and West Virginia, 2013-14 (58th).
To the NCAA basketball committee, road victories are the Holy Grail. If it’s important to perform on a neutral court, because that’s where NCAA-tournament games are played, quality wins on the road far exceed that threshold – and speak more loudly than the dry “Quad 1" metrics can. And that’s why Gonzaga suddenly surged to a No. 1 seed Monday in Joe Lunardi’s bracketology, something I never would have thought we’d be discussing this season. But it must be conceded that Gonzaga can put itself in that debate, ahead of a Wednesday-night game with North Carolina and the usual West Coast Conference trap doors with Saint Mary’s and BYU.
Now couple the two road wins with the one-point Bahamas victory over Oregon, and the Zags have some head-turning possibilities, especially with the Ducks having upset Michigan on the road the other day, and about to have available 6-11 five-star prospect N’Faly Dante. Oregon is 12th in KenPom right now, and my money would say that rating improves.
How does the Zags’ overall resume to date compare with its three years of No. 1 seeds? Well, it appears there will be fewer top-100 wins, even if Gonzaga beats North Carolina. But there are various ways to measure; beyond the Duke conquest last year, you had to go all the way to No. 48 Washington and the Creighton victory for supporting evidence.
The 2016-17 Final Four team had the highest-end resume of any Gonzaga teams, with neutral-court wins over Florida (5), Iowa State (17) and Arizona (18). And the first GU top seed in 2012-13 had three conquests of Big 12 teams, all 20s-ranked. But none of those previous top seeds had the road sway of this team.
Sometimes it’s a fine line. Seton Hall led Oregon by 19 points and could have survived a one-possession game against the Ducks in the Bahamas. So instead of playing and beating a team that itself looks like it could have a case down the road for a No. 1 seed (Oregon), the Zags would have faced one that’s now 6-4, struggling and without one starting forward until February because of a broken wrist.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few must feel like he’s playing with house money. The victory at Washington went down to the wire. The Zags were an underdog at Arizona.
They won both, and in the future, Gonzaga gets those teams in Spokane with – ostensibly, anyway – a better roster.