Gonzaga's Best Team Ever Can Finally Break Small-School March Madness Drought

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 22, 2019

Brandon Clarke
Brandon ClarkeYoung Kwak/Associated Press

One of these years, a small school is going to win the men's college basketball national championship again.

Loyola-Chicago made it to the Final Four last year, becoming the eighth non-major conference team to get there in the past 13 years. VCU, Wichita State, Butler and others fell short of the ultimate goal, but Gonzaga is ready, willing and able to end that drought this year.

It's impossible to argue that Gonzaga is a small school, mid-major or long shot anymore, but the Bulldogs will always feel like the original Cinderella story to a generation of college hoops fans.

Loyola Marymount went to the Elite Eight in 1990 and George Mason shocked everyone by getting to the 2006 Final Four. But in between those incredible performances, Gonzaga's run to the 1999 Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed—and subsequent trips to the Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed in 2000 and 2001—will forever be remembered as one of the biggest triumphs for the little guys.

Two decades later, David has become Goliath.

The glass slipper has been replaced with steel-toed boots, good for stomping a mudhole through the West Coast Conference on an annual basis. After dismantling Pepperdine Thursday night, Gonzaga has now won 17 straight games by at least 12 points. With five more wins (three in the regular season and two in the WCC tournament), the Zags will lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the third time in seven years.

Yet there's hardly any chatter about this being Gonzaga's best team ever, even though it undeniably is.

Yes, this team is even better than the one from two years ago that almost went undefeated during the regular season and likely would've beaten North Carolina in the national championship if the referees hadn't neutralized Zach Collins with questionable calls.

How has this dominant Bulldogs team flown the radar? Because all of the focus this season has been on Duke.

The Blue Devils are the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship, and understandably so. They've lost only two games in the past three months, and early first-half injuries to key starters played a major role in both losses. Factor in the Blue Devils' 23-point comeback at Louisville from last week, and it's going to take guts to pick against this team in the tourney.

Here's an important reminder, though: Gonzaga beat a full-strength Duke on a neutral court back in November.

Josh Perkins (13) and Tre Jones (3)
Josh Perkins (13) and Tre Jones (3)Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Not only did the Bulldogs beat the Blue Devils, but they had a 15-point lead midway through the second half before Duke began a furious comeback that fell just short.

Zion Williamson provided his typical allotment of stat-sheet stuffing (22 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks, two steals and two assists). RJ Barrett scored more than 20 points, as per usual. Tre Jones, Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden all had solid performances. Save for an off night from Cam Reddish—which there have been plenty of throughout the season, one might add—it was standard fare for Duke.

If anything, it was Gonzaga who had the ready-made excuse for a loss. Star player Brandon Clarke was limited to only 23 minutes by early foul trouble, and the Zags were still figuring out how to best utilize Jeremy Jones and Filip Petrusev in the absence of Killian Tillie.

They have only gotten better since then. Heading into Thursday night's game, the Zags boasted the most efficient offense in KenPom.com history—and it wasn't even close.

The top five teams in pre-tournament adjusted offensive efficiency in the KenPom era are:

  1. Gonzaga (currently) 128.0
  2. Villanova (2017-18) 127.4
  3. Creighton (2013-14) 125.5
  4. Wisconsin (2014-15) 124.8
  5. Oklahoma State (2016-17) 124.8

Take out the "adjusted" part and look at plain offensive efficiency, and the gap is even wider:

  1. Gonzaga (currently) 125.1
  2. Villanova (2017-18) 122.8
  3. Creighton (2013-14) 121.4
  4. Notre Dame (2014-15) 121.3
  5. UCLA (2016-17) 120.7

That latter list is ridiculous. We're talking last year's unstoppable national champion, elite offenses led by Doug McDermott and Lonzo Ball and a Notre Dame squad that won four games against Duke and North Carolina before coming one shot away from ending Kentucky's perfect season.

And those are only the honorable mentions looking up at what Gonzaga is doing this year.

That offense is why Gonzaga could become the first non-major conference team to win the national championship since UNLV in 1990. Those Rebels were a mid-major squad with several NBA players who averaged more than 90 points per game.

Sound familiar?

Gonzaga is leading the nation in scoring at 90.2 points per game thanks in large part to Clarke and Rui Hachimura, two of the 10 best players in the country.

Rui Hachimura
Rui HachimuraGregory Bull/Associated Press

Clarke has been a force of nature on both ends of the floor, blocking shots, grabbing offensive rebounds and scoring in the paint as well as anyone. And Hachimura is basically a cheat code, especially in transition.

For all of the fuss about Williamson's physics-defying leaping ability, players built like Hachimura aren't supposed to be able to run the floor like a gazelle before executing a flawless Eurostep. His mid-range game is also a thing of beauty, even as the college game gravitates further toward threes and layups.

Along with that frontcourt duo, Gonzaga's starting five consists of a fifth-year senior at point guard (Josh Perkins), a sniper at shooting guard (Zach Norvell Jr.) and one hell of a fifth-most-noteworthy starter in Corey Kispert.

If you're still clinging to the misguided notion that Perkins will be this team's downfall in a clutch moment, it's time to wake up. The veteran leader is averaging nearly 3.6 assists per turnover and is a much better on-ball defender and free-throw shooter than he used to be. If he's the weak link on this team, that's a damn strong chain.

Factor in the valuable depth that Petrusev, Jones and Geno Crandall provideperhaps even Tillie, too?and this is more than some fun West Coast Conference titan bound to fall short of the Final Four for the 20th time in 21 years.

This is an army ready for a title run through blue-blood waters, punctuated by a second win over Duke should the Blue Devils hold serve and make it that far.

It would only be fitting, right?

Duke always seems to be the final dragon the mid-major hopeful needs to slay. UNLV destroyed Duke in the 1990 championship, and the Blue Devils returned the favor by upsetting the 34-0 Rebels in the 1991 Final Four. Duke survived the Gordon Hayward half-court heave at the end of Butler's run to the 2010 title game. And in 2015, Duke was the big bad boss that put an end to Gonzaga's deepest tournament run in 15 years.

But this season, even Duke might not be able to stop Gonzaga from completing a journey 21 years in the making.

                    

Advanced stats courtesy of KenPom.com.

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.

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