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.
|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|
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.
|2002||6||Round of 64||-1|
|2003||9||Round of 32||+1|
|2004||2||Round of 32||-2|
|2005||3||Round of 32||-1|
|2007||10||Round of 64||0|
|2008||7||Round of 64||-1|
|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|
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.