Will Gonzaga Make the NCAA Tournament?

Thanks to some close losses, the Bulldogs' run of consecutive tournament appearances is in jeopardy.

The 21st century has seen Gonzaga's basketball program go from plucky upstart to an established power, becoming a model mid-major program since bursting onto the scene during the 1999 NCAA tournament.

The Bulldogs have made the tournament in every year since that run to the Elite Eight as a 10 seed, but this streak is currently on shaky ground.

Thanks in part to some hard-luck losses, Gonzaga is 21-7 and 13-3 in the West Coast Conference, where they are in second place behind St. Mary’s (who is also 13-3, but swept the season series for the first time since 1995).

Gonzaga is 66th in the RPI, which despite its glaring flawssomehow remains in use by the selection committee, putting their chances of getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in doubt.

This is somewhat unfortunate, given more useful ranking models see Gonzaga as a much better team. At numberFire, the Bulldogs are tied for 28th in our nERD ratings, which imply they would beat an average opponent by 12.16 on a neutral court.

Elsewhere, Gonzaga is ranked 35th at KenPom, 30th in ESPN’s BPI, and 27th in the Sagarin Ratings.

These aforementioned rating systems are savvy enough to account for the fact that a one-point loss is not the same as a 20-point loss, something the RPI does not do, as it treats all wins and losses the same regardless of scoring margin.

This severely hurts Gonzaga, as all of their losses have been by single digits, including six within five points and three by a single possession. Meanwhile, 14 of their 21 wins have come by double digits, while the Zags are tied for 13th in the nation with a +12.7 average scoring margin against a schedule that ranks 105th.

On the Bubble

Our algorithm currently gives the Bulldogs a 36.1% chance to qualify for the NCAA tournament, either as an at-large team or the WCC tournament champions, meaning they are currently out of the field over at our Bracketology section.

At the Bracket Matrix, a composite of leading tournament projections, Gonzaga is listed as one of the first four teams out of the field.

Their resume is hurt by a 2-7 record against the RPI Top 100 (and again, while I can’t stress enough how much we shouldn’t use the RPI as an objective measure of team strength, the committee still uses it), with wins against UConn and Washington but losses to Texas A&M, Arizona, UCLA, BYU, SMU, and St. Mary’s (twice).

While the Zags lack a bad loss, either in terms of opponent or scoring margin, the committee will surely hold this 2-7 mark against them.

It’s also possible this resume gets worse, as we have Gonzaga projected to finish 22-8, meaning they split their final two regular season games against San Diego (ranked 279th in nERD) and BYU (50th).

While both games are on the road, if there is a loss here, it will almost surely be against the Cougars, who have a nERD rating of +9.63 (so once we account for homecourt advantage, BYU will probably be a slight favorite).

If Gonzaga does drop the BYU game, it would be a pretty big blow to their tournament chances and not just because they would have another loss on their resume.

Assuming Gonzaga takes care of business versus San Diego and BYU beats Portland (198th in) at home, a BYU win over Gonzaga would almost certainly drop the Zags to third in the West Coast Conference (provided 41st-ranked St. Mary’s gets at least a split against 242nd-ranked Santa Clara and 206th-ranked San Francisco).

This, in turn. would mean Gonzaga begins tournament play in the quarterfinals, rather than receiving a bye into the semifinals as one of the top two seeds.

Not only does this create the (admittedly unlikely) scenario where Gonzaga gets a resume-crippling loss to a mid-tier WCC team like Portland or Santa Clara, but it also raises the likelihood they will need to beat both BYU and St. Mary’s to win the tournament. This is already fairly probable because BYU and St. Mary's will probably both finish in second or third, and the conference's 2 seed plays the winner of the 3 seed's quarterfinal (the WCC tournament does not reseed).

The top seed (which almost certainly will be St. Mary’s) cannot face both BYU and Gonzaga, which is significant because Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and BYU are the only teams in the conference in the nERD Top 100. This explains why, despite a nERD rating lower than Gonzaga’s, we give St. Mary’s an 84.5% chance to make the NCAA tournament.

Gonzaga has a quality team, but the scenario they face is not a favorable one.

Then again, the Bulldogs have defied the odds before.