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Sons of Naismith | The Gonzaga Myth

Gonzaga is poised for a 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and the narrative around college basketball will be when, not if, Gonzaga will choke. The reputation of march madness choking has follow Gonzaga for over a decade, and I would love to take a look back and prove that they are not chokers like everyone says, proving it with numbers and anecdotal evidence. The tournament starts in 3 weeks, so I’d love to bang this out relatively quickly and maybe have it posted in 2 weeks? Maybe ambitious but I could get at it quick.

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We see the same script played out nearly every March: Gonzaga dominates the regular season in the West Coast Conference, rolling through seldom-relevant teams such as Pepperdine, Pacific, and Loyola Marymount on their way to a regular season with around 30 wins and a number of losses you can count on one hand. Selection Sunday comes, and cameras are all over the Gonzaga locker room as they receive a top-3 seed. Before the dust settles on their celebration, critics have already started to fire off the same jeers that coach Mark Few and the Bulldogs receive seemingly every year:

“They don’t deserve this!”

“They haven’t played anybody!”

And my favorite, the line I am going to focus this article on:

“They choke in the NCAA Tournament every year!”

This is déjà vu for college basketball fans. Whenever Gonzaga has a top-5 seed in the NCAA Tournament you can be sure the common narrative surrounding Gonzaga will be the Bulldogs seeming to underachieve when the lights are on at the Big Dance. Despite being an extremely difficult accomplishment, Mark Few’s tremendous record of 17 straight NCAA tournaments with Gonzaga has been overshadowed by a reputation for losing earlier in the tournament then they were expected to, or as people like to say, “they choked.” Gonzaga’s reputation for choking in the tournament has been further exaggerated by Mark Few’s inability to reach a Final Four despite several talented and highly ranked teams and a reputation for being one of the best coaches in the country.

Are Gonzaga really the Choke Artists they’re made out to be or are they a victim of flawed perception? I have undertaken a study of the past 17 years of Gonzaga’s tournament results under Mark Few to find out if Gonzaga is truly the underachievers that many critics think they are.

I will be looking at Seed Expectation to see how Gonzaga fared in the tournament relative to where they were expected to finish. Here’s a table of Seed Expectation: an approximation of where a team should finish based off their pre-tournament seeding.

Seed Expected Finish
9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, or 16 Round of 64
5, 6, 7, or 8 Round of 32
3 or 4 Sweet 16
2 Elite 8
1 Final Four

As you can see, Seed Expectation is very simple. For example, a 4 or higher seed would indicate the committee sees you as a top-16 team, so the expectation is that you would reach the sweet 16. It’s a simple tool for tracking how many times Gonzaga finished at, below or above their seed expectation each year.

Furthermore, I’m going to award or penalize the Bulldogs based on where they finished in comparison to their Seed Expectation. For every round they finish worse than their Seed Expectation, they receive a -1; for every round they finish better than their Seed Expectation, they’ll get +1; for every round they match their Seed Expectation, it’s a 0.

For example, if they received an 8 seed and lost in the round of 64, they would be penalized -1. If they received an 8 seed and made it to the Elite Eight they would receive +2. If they were to lose in the round of 32, they would receive a 0. Once we add and subtract the points associated with Seed Expectation, we’ll have a better feel for whether they’re the historical chokers many like to claim.

Year Seed Round Reached Score
2000 10 Sweet Sixteen +2
2001 12 Sweet Sixteen +2
2002 6 Round of 64 -1
2003 9 Round of 32 +1
2004 2 Round of 32 -2
2005 3 Round of 32 -1
2006 3 Sweet Sixteen 0
2007 10 Round of 64 0
2008 7 Round of 64 -1
2009 4 Sweet Sixteen 0
2000 8 Round of 32 0
2011 11 Round of 32 +1
2012 7 Round of 32 0
2013 1 Round of 32 -3
2014 8 Round of 32 0
2015 2 Elite Eight 0
2016 11 Sweet Sixteen +2
Total 0

Check the math for yourself everyone, the total is 0. That means the average finish by Gonzaga over the last 17 years is perfectly aligned with where they were expected to finish.

To further show how, well, average they have performed, you can see they’ve underachieved 5 times, overachieved 5 times, and finished exactly as expected 7 times. These numbers show the perception Gonzaga chokes in the Tournament is actually a myth.

Gonzaga detractors might say 17 years is too long a time to look at to come to this conclusion, but recent history still shows they haven’t flopped as often as their reputation makes it seem. One performance that sticks out like a sore thumb in the Seed Expectation table is the -3 they got after losing in the round of 32 as the No. 1 seed.

Critics points to this loss as a prime example of the ‘Zags folding under the pressure of March basketball, but the loss wasn’t as simple as a No. 9 team upsetting a top seed in the second round. The Wichita State Shockers were no normal 9 seed that year. They had suffered some bad losses earlier in the season, which crippled their chances at a higher seed. They also had three future NBA players on their roster, Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, a luxury most college teams don’t get–and certainly not the standard 9 seed. Not only that, but Wichita State followed up their Gonzaga upset by going all the way to the Final four, where they gave eventual champion Louisville, their toughest game of the Tournament, falling 72-68 in the semifinal. Did Gonzaga really lose to a 9 seed that night? On paper, yes, but in reality they lost to the second-best team in the Tournament based on performance. If the Selection Committee hadn’t put Gonzaga in the same bracket as the sleeping giants from Wichita State, they may have gone all the way to the Final Four.

If you want to see an example of Gonzaga’s nationwide perception, look no further than the image of Adam Morrison crying at center court after the Bulldogs blew a 17-point halftime lead to UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen. Weeping Adam Morrison has been a photo used by many to push their idea of Gonzaga choking, but should they? Yes, Gonzaga held a halftime lead of 17 points and yes, UCLA came back and won 73-71. What many people forget, however, is that Gonzaga was the 3-seed and the Bruins were the 2-seed, preventing it from being an upset and leaving Gonzaga with a Tournament result aligning exactly with their Seed Expectation. As well, this was a Bruins squad the fielded an incredible roster of future professionals including Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison, Ryan Hollins, and Luc Mbah a Moute. After narrowly squeaking by Gonzaga, the UCLA went on to easily dispatch powerful Memphis and LSU teams on their way to a National Title game. This would lead me to believe that the 17-point lead at halftime achieved by Gonzaga was a gritty group of upperclassmen playing above their heads for 20 minutes; a team that shot for the stars and came extremely close before coming back to earth.

The past few years, There have been several Gonzaga squads that casual and serious fans hoped would make a run all the way to the final weekend. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to make them. Despite these disappointments, we can’t swing too far to the other side of the spectrum and claim this team is predestined to collapse when the pressure ratchets up in March. As I’ve shown, the evidence simply doesn’t match that belief. When Selection Sunday comes and Gonzaga is awarded a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, make sure to check history before assuming they’re due for a collapse.  

Thank you to contributions from Spencer Lund and Tony Patelis, and to Andrew Hamilton for the image.

Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, and others. He loves zone defences, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Eric scribes a column called Sons of Naismith, looking at NCAA basketball from a Canadian perspective.

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Editorial

Something Out of Nothing

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It’s March 2016, and I’m driving with Alan Shane Lewis to Montreal to meet with Marc Griffin and Phil Boileau. We’re meeting to speak about this exciting new idea I pitched to them. We were tired of spinning the wheels on our own individual internet shows, and I told them that it was time we stopped waiting for a network and became the network.

We spoke that weekend about creating a community of content creators that all loved ball and came together to make unique content with unique voices – voices we felt were never heard in the mainstream. This community was the base of Press and we’d continue to push forward from that spot. We spoke about some amazing show ideas, article ideas, social media plan. It was truly an exciting time, and still one of the best weekends of my life.

Two years later and that group is a lot smaller, and that idea is Press Basketball.

It caught fire at the beginning and we had people joining our bright shiny new plaything left, right, and center. It was exciting, but now I kind of realize that a lot of it was just that we were that “bright shiny new thing”.

We ended up with a lot of Press Basketball “members” but when I stepped back and looked at what was happening… it wasn’t what I’d imagined. The fire burned out. The idea was gone. We had just become another thing trying to stay alive, waiting for some deus ex machina to show up with money and make everything okay.

I’ve gone through most of my life making something out of nothing. It’s never easy, but when it happens it’s always worth it… ALWAYS. Press made me feel alive at a point. It was literally all I could think about, and while it still is on my mind, it doesn’t make me feel alive. This hurts more than I can ever explain.

Changes are coming my friends. We’re not laying down and dying, and if we do it’s not going to be like this.

The core of Press will be setting fire to a lot over the next few weeks and I personally can’t wait for this to start. From the ashes something new will rise (I watched a lot of XMEN growing up).

Stay tuned, because it’s not over.

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Lonzo Ball: The New Face of the Lakers

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Lonzo Ball is the new face of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. The new savior. The Big Baller Brand is now here to stay and LaVar Ball’s family’s future is set. But is that enough?

Lonzo Ball is a great kid and athlete who knows his talent will take him to another level. The major question mark that remains is whether or not he will take the Lakers there as well. He has the platform and skillset to do so, but with that comes the added pressure from the city and league to basically become part of the next version of Kobe and Shaq. It’s too strainful for a young kid—a rookie—to achieve.  

Magic Johnson, the recently named President of Basketball of Operations for the Lakers, is taking an aggressive approach to get this team back into playoff contention his first year in. One of his first moves was sending D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick. Brook Lopez is definitely an upgrade at center, but has a couple of years already under his belt.   

Lopez will provide a much needed veteran presence with a great IQ for the game at his position. The only downfall is that a couple of years under his belt doesn’t really transfer to great experience, but simply wasted miles on his body. He isn’t as quick as he used to be and doesn’t even rank in the top 10 centers in the league. In fact, Bleacher Report had him last season at exactly 15 out of the top 30 centers in the NBA. While he is has improved by adding the three-point range to his arsenal, there is no doubt that he is nearly past his prime, and although he can still contribute on a nightly basis, who knows how much and what effect it will have with Lonzo Ball running the point.  

Ball has great court vision that has been often compared to that of LeBron James. Combined with his passing skills, he is a true PG with tremendous upside in the backcourt. With that being said, he will only reach a certain extent. His full potential is years from being maximized and people are buying into it early on. In fact, the pressure for him to lift a sub .500 team to the playoffs for the first time in five years is daunting. 

These are Lonzo Ball’s stats during his rookie—and only—year at UCLA: 

  • 14.6 Points
  • 7.6 Assists
  • 6.0  Rebounds
  • 1.8 Steals
  • 0.8 Blocks
  • 55.1 FG%
  • 41.2 3P%

He did a tremendous job maintaining that statline and even added a triple-double in the NBA Summer League, earning him the Summer League MVP.  

Don’t get me wrong, Ball seems ready for the challenge and is definitely a one-of-a-kind talent mirroring that of Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, but he is not an All-Star or MVP—at least, not yet. These way-too-early predictions that he is the Lakers’ new savior are farfetched. He has yet to face the elite NBA offensive threats and superstars that have been at it for 10-plus years. Defensively speaking he will not be able to keep up. Not in his first year. He still needs NBA experience and a more rounded roster to be able to reach the playoffs.  

He is off to a good start, but being named NBA Summer League MVP doesn’t necessarily mean a spectacular season is coming as some think it does. Especially if you consider the previous Summer League MVP winners.

Year Nat. Player Pos. Team
2012 Damian Lillard (co-MVPs) PG Portland Trail Blazers
Josh Selby (co-MVPs) PG Memphis Grizzlies
2013 Jonas Valančiūnas C Toronto Raptors
2014 Glen Rice Jr. SG Washington Wizards
2015 Kyle Anderson SF San Antonio Spurs
2016 Tyus Jones PG Minnesota Timberwolves
2017 Lonzo Ball PG Los Angeles Lakers

With the exceptions of Damian Lillard in 2012 and Jonas Valanciunas in 2013, the past five Summer League MVP winners have gone on to produce very mediocre NBA careers. All I’m saying is, don’t read too much into NBA Summer League. It’s the pre-preseason that no one really watches or cares about.  

The NBA season is nearing—exactly a month away—and my somewhat harsh criticism of Lonzo Ball isn’t too cruel. I am just not ready to jump on the Ball bandwagon following LaVar’s prophecies of his son being the Lakers prodigal son. He won’t be. Again, at least not yet. He needs to earn his spot and the transition will surprise him his first year in. It will hit him hard, but, despite my concerns, eventually Lonzo Ball will become a future NBA All-Star and a daring NBA point guard.  

Not yet though, and until then all we can do is prepare for his official NBA debut. Until then, we can enjoy and bask in his newly released rap single paying tribute to his little brother LaMelo Ball.  

If the NBA doesn’t end up being his calling in life, at least he has a back up career in mind.

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MELO-dy Cool

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Carmelo Anthony has been traded away from the New York Knickerbockers to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

You probably knew this before you laid eyes on these words.

It honestly doesn’t matter much who the Thunder traded away for “Melo” and who the Knicks received, because they weren’t anywhere near Melo’s overall value. But, it matters that Melo himself is gone and away from New York City, and for all his accolades, he honestly had a major part to play in his exodus.

Melo altogether is a player that both outplayed and underplayed his own potential. No one that saw him at Oak Hill Academy as a high schooler could for-sure say that he’d be a superstar, and everyone that saw him at Syracuse University might say he was a can’t-miss by then.

And he didn’t miss on most of what he’s teased, he’s delivered in a lot of ways; but, the reason why he didn’t work out in New York was because he was selfish to a fault in the key places that required compromise.

Do you remember how he got to Kings County in the first place? He forced a trade to the Knicks from his then-Denver Nuggets, a team that was teasing with talent abundant, but not unlike today, stuck in the mighty Western Conference. With title contenders like the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers at that time of the NBA, the 2010–2011 season, the Nuggets just weren’t going to make the noise they wanted to make. Melo was a free agent-to-be at the completion of that season, and it was likely that he’d leave. His time with the Nuggets, a very successful time, had run its course. The change was coming, and he was catalyst to the change he wanted to see in his world. Nothing wrong with that.

The problem was that Melo didn’t want to wait for New York. He wanted New York then and there, and it didn’t matter how it was going to happen.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks weren’t in a position to compete for a title during that season, something he long wanted to bring to New York upon his eventual arrival.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to gut their team’s best assets in a trade for the Brooklyn-born, Baltimore-raised native. It didn’t matter that if he waited until the season was over, he could be playing with a young and promising Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov (a revelation upon his arrival to the States from Russia), amongst others.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to sacrifice draft picks for him, instead of keeping them upon signing later.

It didn’t matter to Melo.

And so, when he arrived in New York, in early 2011, he received the adulation and praise of a prodigal son. Sure, the team lost some valuable talent and depth, but surely Melo would will the Knicks into wild success — just like he did in Denver, right?

And sure enough, after he rebuked the Linsanity of 2012 when Jeremy Lin became an overnight NBA superstar and balked at the prospect of Lin’s resigning, he gained some success.

The 2012–2013 season saw Melo as the closest thing to being an MVP candidate that anyone had ever seen from him as a professional in an 82-game season, but not before being totally indifferent to former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s wishes for him to play more at power forward to stretch the offensive side of the ball for the Knicks and the defenses of the opposing league teams. D’Antoni quit before the end of the 2011–2012 season, because of Melo’s loathsome resistance to D’Antoni and the coach’s embrace of Lin.

A big aspect of Melo’s failure to bring glory to Manhattan was his resistance to doing what has made him a legend in USA Basketball. Having won multiple gold medals as a stretch-four shooter, that he refused to embrace that positioning as an NBA pro limited the ability of his teams to win.

As a four, Melo, who had gained grown-man weight from natural maturity and strength and conditioning, didn’t have to be the cavity in his team’s defense as he struggled as a man-to-man defender. Moving from his formerly-natural small forward slot could allow him to defend more ably and allow someone more fleet of foot to stop the dominant wings that Melo often matched up against. Becoming something different and better in a new place would’ve allowed him the opportunity to be greater than anyone had known him to be in an NBA uniform.

But, he refused and rebuked such a change.

And one last thing: Injuries and front office politics aside, Melo was loyal to the Knicks organization through and through. But, he had a choice to go.

So, to recap, Melo forced a trade to New York that gutted the talent of the roster, and then he refused to change to a position that would behoove him and the team in the journey to championship gain.

Well, he also had a chance to leave for greener pastures and become a Chicago Bull, where he could experience more success with a front office committed to his development and surrounding talent. He didn’t want to do that, and that’s fair. New York was home, but if he was going to win in New York, seeing as to how being the way that he’d always been wasn’t helping — that is shoot-first, ask questions and defend later — why return to The Big Apple if you aren’t going to change?

He saw what being a score-only wing was giving his teams — it gave his teams very little success for the vast majority of 14 years. Sure, his Nuggets and Knicks made the playoffs (not so much New York) much of the time, but he said he wasn’t playing for that.

In the end, Melo and the Knicks not working out could be seen before he even became a Knick, when Melo stomped his way out of Denver to play immediately for New York when it would’ve behooved him to stay put for two more months.

Championship or bust, they say.

He couldn’t really compromise too well for the chip, it appears.

In the end, Carmelo Anthony — despite years of league-leading jersey sales, runway appearances, and bright lights on the New York City streets with LaLa — was a big, fat, shining, New York bust.

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