Will the cushy WCC schedule hurt Gonzaga?
01-30-17

Gonzaga got three minutes worth of national advertising Saturday on ESPN’s weekly College GameDay show, as the subject turned to the Zags’ potential shelf life in the NCAA tournament.

“There’s still skepticism,” said host Rece Davis. “There’s always skepticism about Gonzaga.” But he added: “They made good tournament runs the last two years.”

There was no bigger skeptic than Jay Williams, the ESPN analyst. And while his words won’t be popular among Gonzaga fans, his point deserves airing.

“I think they’re legit, but it’s the same old story,” Williams said. “Let me tell you why. I think they have the talent to get to a Final Four. The only thing I worry about, when you coast through the West Coast Conference like they’re going to do, even if you have a hiccup and you lose at Saint Mary’s, I don’t think the team is battle-tested, and I think that could be a major issue when you go into the NCAA tournament.

“I think there’s a lot to be said about a team that’s used to being in those grind-it-out-scenario games. You have experience in those types of adverse moments. You know who your leaders are. You know who the ball’s gonna go to. Those are all gonna be new things when they’re facing adversity in the NCAA tournament.”

Williams could be right. There’s just no way of knowing.

Starting in 2002-03, the Zags began throwing in a mid-to-late season game against a quality opponent. That first came in the old ESPN Bracket Busters event, which Gonzaga quickly decided the program had outgrown, and opted out.

Later came January-February games against Stanford (2006 and 2007) and Memphis (2007-2011). As recently as last year, the Zags, struggling to find a quality win, lost at Southern Methodist.

Perhaps there’s a muscle-memory element to what Williams says. Maybe when you’re locked up against a physical Wisconsin team in the NCAA tournament, something clicks in and you realized you succeeded against a similarly bruising team a month earlier.

But it’s debatable.

I don’t know if Gonzaga failed to get to the Final Four in 2015 because the moment was too big against Duke. More likely, it was because the GU guards, while good, just weren’t quite good enough. Similarly, last year against Syracuse in the Sweet 16, it seemed more a failing of fragility and inexperience in the backcourt that cost Gonzaga down the stretch. And remember, Syracuse’s pressure brought the Orange back from a much bigger deficit against Virginia two days later than it faced against Gonzaga.

Two things: The nature of the tournament -- playing tougher teams as you progress -- seems to argue against Williams. In the early rounds, if you advance, you’re ostensibly playing more and more capable opponents. For those teams that don’t face a rugged league schedule -- and let’s face it, Gonzaga is one of those -- it’s like on-the-job training.

Then there’s this: If Gonzaga was indeed vulnerable because it hasn’t been drop-forged by a heavyweight conference, it would probably have shown up in some immediate, stunning losses. Instead, over the 18-year streak of consecutive NCAA tournaments, GU is 15-3 in first-round games. Moreover, on most of the occasions the Zags have been in tossup first-round games, or close to it, they’ve prospered -- to wit, against Florida State in 2010, St. John’s in 2011, West Virginia in 2012 and Oklahoma State in 2014. The middle two of those were blowouts.

Gonzaga has never suffered the jaw-dropping, can’t-believe-it first-round upset that would support the theory, while a lot of purebred programs have -- Duke, Michigan State, Kansas. That doesn’t debunk Williams’ theory, but surely the first game is where you might find some supporting evidence.

Bottom line: Every theory has some legs, until Gonzaga silences the doubters with a Final Four.


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