What to expect when the Zags have high expectations

The question, on a Gonzaga message board, got me to thinking. It asked if there was even slight concern the Zags might not live up to the considerable hype in 2018-19.

So I hit the archives, in search of any telltale signs that preseason expectations have proved too much for the Zags to shoulder. Their No. 3 preseason ranking (the current station) was highest ever at GU.

In the previous 20 seasons – the Gonzaga golden era – the Zags were preseason-ranked in 15. Three of the misses came in the first four years.

This is the fifth time GU has gone into a season ranked in the AP top 10. Maybe the most enlightening thing that can be said is that three of the previous four seasons with a preseason top-10 ranking ended in some of Gonzaga’s most crushing losses.

(It's worth noting that self-imposed pressure isn't the only potential reason for failing to deliver on the hype. It could be because of lousy chemistry or because a key player underperformed, etc.)

Surely the most herky-jerky in that group of the preseason-ranked-top-10 was the 2015-16 outfit, which started at No. 9. This was the team that had lost Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. to graduation.

It mucked through December with home losses to Arizona and UCLA when Przemek Karnowski injured his back; saw Karnowski miss the entire season after surgery; got swept in the regular season by Saint Mary’s; looked for all the world like it might finally miss the NCAA tournament; suddenly sprang up out of a casket to win the WCC tournament; as an 11th seed, blew away Seton Hall and Utah by double digits in the NCAA tournament; and finally fell to Syracuse in the Sweet 16 after losing a lead down the stretch.

Oh, and all of this for the world to see on an HBO series on the team. As Mike Roth, the athletic director, called the season: “. . . a freakin’ Greek tragedy.”

On more than one occasion, I think you can make the case that Gonzaga’s prominence – its seed in the NCAA tournament – might have had the opposition on high alert and thereby made it more difficult for the Zags. In that vein, Nevada, a 10 seed in 2004 at KeyArena, blew away No. 2 seed Gonzaga.

It’s worth throwing out this: There have been times in the past when I thought Gonzaga was overrated – not as a failing of its own, but because of the nature of the polls. The Zags don’t lose much when January hits, and if you don’t lose, you move up in the polls. It looked worse when that No. 3-ranked team lost to Nevada, simply because Gonzaga probably was overrated.

By and large, though, I would point to only one case in which the Zags might have felt the weight of the world – when they attained their first No. 1 ranking in March of 2013, narrowly slipped by a 16th-seeded Southern University team, and then fell to ninth-seeded Wichita State. Everything was new to the Zags – being ranked No. 1 was a late-season novelty, and being a No. 1 seed was a first.

In the evolution of any program, there are fits and starts and mountains climbed and lessons learned. The whole of it, the fact Gonzaga has been to a Final Four and checked most of the boxes of a high-level program, and had experience dealing with all of it, seems to argue against a significant shortfall. But hey, such unknowns are why they play the games.

A look at how the previous 20 seasons developed with regard to the AP poll (preseason ranking is in parentheses):

1999: (Unranked) Stormed to the Elite Eight.

2000: (24) . . . reached No. 22 late in December but then fell out of the rankings for good . . . barged to the Sweet 16.

2001: (Unranked) . . . was never ranked . . . made the Sweet 16 for a third straight year.

2002: (Unranked) . . . rose all the way to No. 6 by March 12 but had its first real downer in the 20-year tournament run, losing to Wyoming.

2003: (22) . . . inched to No. 20 by Nov. 26, then fell out of polls the rest of the way . . . finished with memorable double-OT loss to top-seeded Arizona in the NCAA second round.

2004: (10) . . . stayed in polls throughout and was ranked No. 3 in mid-March before stunning blowout loss to Nevada at KeyArena.

2005: (25) . . . fell out of the polls one week, got as high as No. 10 on March 15 and eventually lost to Texas Tech in the NCAA second round.

2006: (8) . . . stayed in single-digit poll rankings all season . . . lost heartbreaker to UCLA in the Sweet 16.

2007: (Unranked) . . . got as high as No. 16, but shorthanded club fell in the NCAA first round to Indiana.

2008: (14) . . . had nine-week period in mid-season unranked … re-emerged late in season at No. 24 before falling to Stephen Curry-led Davidson in first round of NCAA, the last time GU lost in the first round.

2009: (10) . . . jumped to No. 4 in early December after Old Spice championship, fell all the way out of the rankings with three-game loss streak in December, then recovered to No. 10 before Sweet 16 loss to eventual champ North Carolina.

2010: (Unranked) . . . got as high as No. 13 and was 22nd when it was ousted big by Syracuse in NCAA second round.

2011: (12) . . . lost five games by mid-December (San Diego State, Kansas State, Illinois, WSU, Notre Dame) and never saw the rankings after November . . . got Jimmered in the NCAA second round.

2012: (23) … the most in-and-out (of the rankings) team in the 20-year run, it entered and exited five times each . . . Ohio State ended the Zags’ season in the NCAA second round.

2013: (21) . . . this club was relatively unheralded early, but got all the way to No. 1 early in March and held that ranking three weeks before ouster against Wichita State in the NCAA second round.

2014: (15) … was only twice in polls after the New Year and out by March, when it fell badly to top-seeded Arizona in the NCAA second round.

2015: (13) . . . with only an overtime loss at Arizona in December, Zags shot all the way to No. 2 on Feb. 2, then followed with a defeat to BYU on Senior Night . . . ended a 35-3 season with an Elite Eight loss to Duke.

2016: (9 ) . . . after Przemek Karnowski injury, fell out of the polls by mid-December, and only bobbed back into them once at No. 25 . . . then assembled a surprise March run that ended with a heartbreaking loss to Syracuse in the Sweet 16.

2017: (14) . . . with victories over Florida and Iowa State and a title in the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando, Zags shot to No. 1 for the second time in school history by Jan. 30 . . . they went undefeated all the way to Feb. 25 before their first loss – another Senior Night setback against BYU – then began a watershed March run all the way to the NCAA title game, ending with a loss to North Carolina.

2018: (18) . . . Zags got as high as No. 6 in a 32-5 season, including a decisive loss to eventual champ Villanova in New York in early December . . . they made their fourth straight Sweet 16 before a season-ending loss to Florida State.