Lest you thought such a thing was unlikely, Gonzaga is following its first national title game appearance with another typically tremendous season under Mark Few.
Saturday night brought about Gonzaga’s (23-4, 13-1) best performance in its biggest game of the conference season. Eleventh-ranked Saint Mary’s (24-3, 13-1) was picked apart by the Bulldogs and got dropped in its home arena, 78-65. The Gaels’ school-record win streak is over, clipped at 19.
It was a revenge win for Gonzaga, which was edged, 74-71, by the Gaels back on Jan. 18. What played out in Moraga, Calif., on Saturday night was a display of dominance, a revival of a terrific rivalry and renewed proof that Gonzaga at its best is irrepressible in the West Coast Conference.
Gonzaga offensive dynamo Rui Hachimura scored 23 points on 11 of 16 shooting. The young man is growing into a terrific college player. But for as good as he was, Gonzaga’s defense is the story. Saint Mary’s senior center Jock Landale, who has an All-America case at this point, was countervailed by double teams, finishing with four points on four shots. Gonzaga’s D was relentless, as good as it’s been all season, considering the venue and opponent. That execution was performed at a level worthy of last season’s squad, which I’ll remind you may not have won the national title but came damn close and still finished atop the KenPom standings.
Now there’s a tie atop the WCC standings between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, which is apropos. The West Coast Conference is still aching for a perennial third, fourth and fifth program to be in the NCAA Tournament discussion (BYU is an occasional obliger), so in absence of that it best suits the league to have Gonzaga face a foil. Saint Mary’s is more than that; this is a reliable rivalry. McKeon Pavilion was rowdy, and it could’ve been a two-hour rock concert if SMC was able to match Gonzaga’s energy.
Few and his assistants sent a worrying message to any coach in that league thinking they had a hunch on how to upend Gonzaga. The Bulldogs only have one loss in WCC play and at this juncture it seems fiction to conceive a scenario where they get to two prior to the league playoff.
Meaning, barring an unfathomable collapse, Gonzaga will be going to the NCAA Tournament for the 20th straight season.
Despite losing breakout freshman Zach Collins to the NBA lottery, starting point guard Nigel Williams-Goss to the NBA Draft, plus graduating seniors Przemek Karnowski and Jordan Mathews, there is no Final Four hangover in order for the Zags. Few things are truly reliable year after year in college basketball, but Gonzaga getting to the Big Dance is one of them. You can set your clock to it.
Saturday’s win was an orangey flare into the dark night sky, a hot reminder that Few is still operating a juggernaut in the Pacific Northwest. In the wake of such a demonstrative victory, this question can be dropped on the table: Is Gonzaga again the best team out West? The 12th-ranked Bulldogs had high-profile games in late November, when they went 2-1 at the PK80 (beating Ohio State and Texas, losing to Florida in what still might be the best game of this season). Since then, aside from a lackluster loss in New York City against Villanova, Gonzaga’s been off the national radar.
It’s time to properly give this team its due. It was laughably ranked 50th in RPI heading into its game Saturday night, and a mere 42nd in KPI. Sagarin has the Bulldogs at No. 10, though, and KenPom had Gonzaga No. 9 prior to win. RPI and KPI are not predictive-based metrics; Sagarin and KenPom are. With that in mind, and with a wide disparity between the ranking genres, it makes for an interesting test case come Sunday afternoon.
At 12:30 p.m. ET CBS will be revealing the selection committee’s one, and only, in-season ranking of the top 16 teams in the country. If this were a decade ago, a team with an RPI in the 40s or worse would stand almost no shot at landing on the 3 seed or 4 seed line, let alone the top two. But, Gonzaga’s got a realistic shot. And since we know the committee likes to use the eye test to encourage debates amid contrasting metrics battles, the Bulldogs’ late-night beatdown of a Saint Mary’s team that was riding a nation’s-best 19-game win streak only reinforces Gonzaga’s case.
(Side note: Saint Mary’s became the 10th ranked team since Monday’s AP poll update to lose at home. It’s been a wild week, which will make for an even more unpredictable reveal of the top 16 teams.)
If Gonzaga doesn’t land in the top 16 that doesn’t mean it won’t be there come Selection Sunday. But it also would be an interesting decision on behalf of the selection committee, because Gonzaga’s losses have come to Florida in double OT, to Villanova at Madison Square Garden, by two points at San Diego State, and vs. Saint Mary’s. The SMC loss is Gonzaga’s only one at home — a result neutralized by the Zags returning serve in Moraga. (Despite having one fewer loss, the Gaels have a less likely chance to be in the top 16 due to their typically weak non-conference schedule.)
Whether or not Gonzaga is listed in the top 16 won’t alter the reality that on Saturday night, and over the past month, Gonzaga has looked like one of the best teams in the country. Just because you might not have seen it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The Bulldogs are barking into March. Perhaps by then they won’t be as overlooked as they have been for the past two months.