Gonzaga Basketball: How Can the No. 2 Team Be the Country's Greatest Unknown?

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Gonzaga Basketball: How Can the No. 2 Team Be the Country's Greatest Unknown?

When trying to frame the national title conversation in college basketball, there's always a splinter group that insists we disregard every team outside the Power Six.

Never mind that Butler came within a half-inch of winning the national championship, or that St. Joe's missed the Final Four by a similar margin, or that the CAA has produced as many Final Four programs since the millennium began as the Pac-12 (two each).

And it seems, in a paradoxical sort of way, that anti-mid-major sentiment metastasizes when the team in question has a gaudy win-loss record—as if winning one's games is a referendum on the opposition rather than an endorsement of one's worth.

So it should come as no surprise that Gonzaga—27-2 and ranked second in the nation—is facing the "fraud" charge from some fairly prominent critics.

Some of that skepticism is warranted. The Bulldogs aren't the caliber of defensive team that usually wins championships. And while their resume is dotted with quality wins—Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Kansas State, St. Mary's—they've yet to beat a team generally considered among the nation's top 10.

Of course, they haven't had an opportunity to play such a team, which brings us all the way back to where we began.

Below we'll play angel-devil with Gonzaga in hopes of supplementing the debate over this team's March potential with some deeper statistical context. But before that, Bulldogs freshman Rem Bakamus on guitar:

GIF courtesy of Lost Lettermen

 

Good: Gonzaga Has High-Major Size

Led by 7-foot center Kelly Olynyk, an upper-tier POY candidate, Gonzaga has one of the biggest and most skilled front lines in America. The Bulldogs rank 13th overall in effective height, one of only six teams outside the Power Six to rank among the nation's top 20 in that category. In the seven seasons that KenPom.com has tracked that statistic, Gonzaga has never fared worse than 36th nationally.

Devoid of context, those numbers are meaningless. Obviously, size helps in a game with a 10-foot rim, but in terms of predictive metrics, we can do a lot better than "Who's taller?"

But I draw attention to size in Gonzaga's case because it highlights what separates this team from other mid-major contenders: pedigree. The Bulldogs have been ranked in the AP Top 20 at some point during each of the last 11 seasons. Over that time, the program has accumulated a good deal of traction on the recruiting trail.

William Mancebo/Getty Images

The ability to regularly attract skilled bigs is a marker of that success. Gonzaga wouldn't be able to obtain such a towering front line if it wasn't able to recruit, and the preponderance of Power Six teams ranked among the nation's best in effective height reveals the close link between recruiting prowess and team size.

There are, of course, strategic advantages to Gonzaga's length. The Bulldogs shoot the nation's seventh-best two-point field goal percentage and have two frontcourt players—Olynyk and 6'8" forward Elias Harris—who rank among the country's top 50 in fouls drawn per 40 minutes.

But their mere presence in Spokane is a testament to the program's accumulated structural advantages, especially when compared to other mid-major challengers.

 

Bad: But Can They Defend?

For all of Gonzaga's length, it's curious that the Bulldogs rank 89th overall in defensive rebounding percentage and just 201st in block percentage. And since those figures are not adjusted to the quality of opponent, they give equal credence to Gonzaga's work against its conference opponents.

Overall, the Bulldogs rank 23rd in adjusted defensive efficiency. While that's not a bad figure by any stretch, it's a bit below the threshold for your typical tournament champion.

A quick look at each of the past 10 NCAA title-winners and where they ranked in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency (remember, "adjusted" means that quality of opponent is taken into account):

Year Team Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Rank
2011-12 Kentucky 9th
2010-11 Connecticut 14th
2009-10 Duke 4th
2008-09 North Carolina 16th
2007-08 Kansas 1st
2006-07 Florida 12th
2005-06 Florida 5th
2004-05 North Carolina 5th
2003-04 Connecticut 5th
2002-03 Syracuse 19th

Generally speaking, we should be wary of arbitrary numerical cut-offs. It's not like a team ranked 20th or lower in defensive adjusted efficiency can't win the national championship, but history says it's difficult for teams who aren't among the defensive elite to win an NCAA title.

 

Good: We Know They Can Score

There should be no qualms about Gonzaga's offensive prowess.

Few teams are better inside-out than Mark Few's Bulldogs, and it starts with the aforementioned Olynyk.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The junior from Canada is having a monster year in Spokane, highlighted by a true-shooting percentage north of 70 percent and an offensive efficiency rating that ranks 19th in the country. Olynyk's array of post moves combined with his sheer size make him a near-impossible guard. They also lead to scores of free throws, which Olynyk converts at an 80.3 percent success rate.

But Olynyk wouldn't have the room he needs down low without Gonzaga's brigade of perimeter shooters. Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell and Drew Barham are all lethal from beyond, and the Bulldogs shoot a better percentage from three than all but 31 Division I teams.

The result of all that: the nation's third-best adjusted offensive efficiency rating.

 

Bad: Recent Tournament Failures

The good will Gonzaga built during its early Cinderella days has eroded in recent years. The Zags haven't been to the Sweet Sixteen since 2009 and are just 6-6 in their last 12 NCAA tournament games.

And I'd say Gonzaga's turn from March upstart to low-seeded underachiever is as much responsible for the skepticism surrounding the 2012-13 team as any statistical or tactical gripe.

There was a brief period around the turn of the century when it seemed the Bulldogs could do no wrong in March, and it produced the impression that Gonzaga was somehow of a different breed than every other college basketball outsider. These days, after watching Mark Few's team struggle in early-round action more than once, we're more likely to give Butler or VCU that benefit of the doubt and instead lump Gonzaga in with the typical mid-major team.

So when we call the Zags soft, or label them overrated, or accuse them of getting fat on weak competition, what we're really saying is, "It's been a long time since the slipper fit."

 

Bottom Line: It's Hard to Handicap Elite Mid-Majors

ESPN College Basketball Insider John Gasaway has a convenient and intoxicatingly simple way of separating contenders from pretenders in the NCAA title chase.

If a team is outscoring its conference foes by 0.13 points per possession or more, it's got a shot to win the Big Dance. If not, lower your expectations.

Gasaway admits, however, that teams outside the Power Six need to outscore their conference opponents by a good deal more to qualify for title consideration. And since there aren't many mid-major teams who've made the Final Four, it's difficult to determine how exactly that number should be adjusted for high-ranking teams in what Gasaway calls "high mid-major" conferences.

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He's settled on the number 0.20 points per possession, but it's based only on a few data points.

The good news for Gonzaga is that they are outscoring their opponents in the West Coast Conference by a staggering 0.313 points per possession. That bad news is that the WCC ranks just 10th overall in league strength according to Ken Pomeroy's metric, while other "high mid-major" conferences like the Missouri Valley (9th), Atlantic 10 (8th) and Mountain West (4th) appear markedly stronger.

So the question for Gonzaga is the same question that faces every team of its kind:  Are the Bulldogs dominant or are their opponents weak?

We probably won't have a definitive answer until March, but I decided to go back through the last 10 seasons and see how this Gonzaga's team dominance stacks up against the WCC exploits of past Gonzaga teams.

Year Conference Record PPP Differential in Conference WCC Conference Rank
2012-13 14-0 0.313 10
2011-12 13-3 0.166 11
2010-11 11-3 0.186 11
2009-10 12-2 0.184 14
2008-09 14-0 0.290 13
2007-08 13-1 0.284 13
2006-07 11-3 0.151 14
2005-06 14-0 0.158 12
2004-05 12-2 0.122 10
2003-04 14-0 0.284 12

     

Not only is the WCC as strong as it's ever been, but this 2012-13 Gonzaga team is more dominant on a per-possession basis than any other Gonzaga team of the past decade. In other words, competition is up, but the Zags are better.

Those metrics alone should prevent us from grouping the 2012-13 Bulldogs with failed Zags teams of yore. And if anything, they confirm that this team has second-weekend talent.

Beyond that, though, the past is an uncertain guide and the future is anyone's guess.

Note: All statistics courtesy of KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.

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