Gonzaga basketball has held the mantle as the best program that hasn’t won a national championship under Mark Few.
The Bulldogs have accomplished everything else over the last quarter century — 23 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, 10 Sweet 16 berths, four Elite Eights, and a national title game appearance in 2017 — but haven’t been able to cut down the nets. However, this is also the first time the Zags have been favorites to win a national title. Even in other seasons when they were a No. 1 seed, Gonzaga was not the favorite to make the Final Four in their region.
Some of you will be weary of picking Gonzaga to win it all because they’ve fallen short so many times before, but that’s only looking at the name “Gonzaga” and not what this group has actually done on the court.
Mark Few’s squad has proven time and time again that they’re the best team in the country this season and I fully expect them to continue to do so in Indianapolis. Here’s why:
Dominance on both ends of the court
I’m sure you’ve heard the refrain that Gonzaga “has a great offense, but their defense isn’t good” from a talking head on TV or many people on Twitter.
Part of that is right — the Zags are really, really good offensively. They lead the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, effective field-goal percentage, points per game, and are third in assists per game. Four players average at least 11.8 points per game and all five starters shoot at least 33.3 percent from three. The last team to post offensive efficiency numbers like Gonzaga was the 2018 Villanova team that won the national title, which should tell you something.
And the part about their defense? Completely false! Just because it’s not as good as their historically great offense doesn’t mean it’s bad! In fact, Gonzaga has a top 10 defense, per KenPom, and has completely shut opponents down in stretches when they’re fully engaged. Jalen Suggs is rated as the nation’s best individual defender, per EvanMiya’s DBPR.
The problem is that, whether it’s due to leading by a bunch or by facing a lesser opponent, Gonzaga can go through stretches when it isn’t fully engaged. But make no mistake, the Bulldogs are really good on the defensive end.
The Bulldogs are one of three teams (Illinois, Michigan) that rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, which holds even more importance when looking from a historical perspective.
History on their side
Since the start of college basketball’s analytics era (2001-02 season), the 18 national champions have averaged a top 10 offense and top 15 defense. Eleven of their 18 champions had a top four offense and top 15 defense, and Gonzaga fits into both parameters.
Perhaps more importantly, all but three of those 18 champions entered the NCAA Tournament ranked in the KenPom top six. The 2011 and 2014 UConn teams were two of the notable exceptions, as was the 2003 Syracuse team. The common denominator among those three was that they had the tournament’s premier superstar (Carmelo Anthony, Kemba Walker, Shabazz Napier) carry them to a title.
In each of the last three tournaments, the national champion finished second in adjusted efficiency the season before. Guess where Gonzaga finished last year? Yup, second.
The other big factor: 12 of the last 18 national champions were No. 1 seeds. The Zags check that box as well, earning the tournament’s top overall seed as the nation’s lone undefeated team.
The beauty of earning that top overall seed is that, in theory, you should have the easiest path to the Final Four and national championship game. That looks to be the case for Gonzaga.
Mark Few’s squad has already beaten the No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4 seeds in their region during the regular season. Gonzaga beat No. 2 seed Iowa 99-88 back on Dec. 19 following a 17-day layoff due to COVID protocols. The Bulldogs also knocked off Kansas — the No. 3 seed in the region — by 12 in their season opener and blew out Virginia, a No. 4 seed, by 23 on Dec. 26. None of those games were particularly close either.
It’s also a region ripe for upsets! No. 12 UC Santa Barbara and No. 13 Ohio are two of the tournament’s most popular upset picks, meaning Gonzaga could potentially face either in the Sweet 16. The most popular 15-over-2 upset pick has been Grand Canyon over Iowa, which would make this path even easier.
Oh, and both Kansas and Virginia likely won’t have their full complement of players for the tournament due to positive COVID tests and corresponding protocols.
This isn’t going to be a cakewalk for Gonzaga by any stretch, but it’s impossible to deny that the region sets up favorably.
There isn’t a rule that you have to have future NBA players on your roster to make a national championship run, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Good players win games, after all, and pretty much every champion has produced multiple first round picks.
- 2019 Virginia: DeAndre Hunter, Ty Jerome
- 2018 Villanova: Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Omari Spellman
- 2017 North Carolina: Justin Jackson, Tony Bradley
- 2016 Villanova: Josh Hart, Bridges
- 2015 Duke: Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen
- 2014 UConn: Shabazz Napier
- 2013 Louisville: Gorgui Dieng
- 2012 Kentucky: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague
Anyways, yeah. Lots of pros!
Gonzaga hasn’t always had those, but this year they do. Jalen Suggs is projected to be a top four pick in the 2021 draft. Corey Kispert is also projected to go in the lottery. Joel Ayayi is considered an early second-round pick, but there’s a chance he could go in the first as well. We’ve seen those players — particularly Suggs and Kispert — step up and be the difference whenever Gonzaga has been tested.
Those three, along with second-team All-American Drew Timme (Kispert was a first team selection, Suggs was also second), rated as the four best players in the entire country in Bayesian Performance Rating, which measure’s a player’s overall value.
This has never happened before and it helps put this team’s dominance into perspective.
It is. It really is.
Gonzaga has been at the top of the sport for so long that it seems impossible for this program to not to win a title eventually. It’s the same feeling people had about Jay Wright and Villanova before they won two titles. It was then passed on to Tony Bennett and Virginia, and they won a title in 2019. Now, it feels like it’s Mark Few and Gonzaga’s turn.
If it doesn’t happen this year, I don’t know when it will happen. Few is an elite coach who will be in the Hall of Fame before long. A team entering the NCAA Tournament undefeated hasn’t happened since 1976, a whopping 45 years ago! Odds suggest that streak will be snapped sooner rather than later.
It bears repeating: this Gonzaga team is so, so talented. The Zags have captured 25 of their 26 wins by double digits, including 23 straight. They have won when playing fast, leaning on defense, shooting poorly from the field, and even when the other team seemingly couldn’t miss.
This is the team that will be cutting down the nets on April 5.