Friday, February 28, 2014
Weekend Homework: Zags' shaky finish
By Eamonn Brennan
Has any Gonzaga team in the past decade ever been more relieved to win a late-season game against a .500 team? Whatever was going through the Bulldogs' heads after Thursday night -- good win, let's go have a sandwich, what kind of sandwiches are available (everyone else spends most of their time thinking about sandwiches, right?) -- at some point, a collective sigh of relief must have been part of the calculus.
Gonzaga's 70-53 win at Pacific will do nothing to improve its NCAA tournament seed. It did little to ensure yet another West Coast Conference title. At least a share of that title was already sewn up. But the win at Pacific was massive in its own way because it ceased the possibility of a four-game season-ending road slide that threatened to turn one of the nation's marquee mid-major brands into just one more bubble team scrapping for its life.
Mark Few and Gonzaga missed the chance to get a marquee victory in Maui early in the season.
For most of its post-Cinderella existence, Gonzaga has scheduled so well in the nonconference -- and performed so well in general -- that the Zags didn't have to stress about late-season bubble concerns. But this season is a little different. This season, Gonzaga's nonconference schedule was merely so-so, and the chances it did have it squandered. In Maui, it lost a first-round game to Dayton, which robbed it of shots at Baylor and Cal in the winner's bracket. It ended up playing Chaminade and Arkansas instead. On Dec. 21, it lost to K-State in Kansas City. In early February, it had a win in hand before a late Tigers comeback in Memphis.
Because of all this, the Zags' NCAA tournament résumé wasn't a slam dunk before they embarked on their season-ending road trip. Per the RPI, the Zags' best win is still their Jan. 25 home victory over BYU. After that it's Arkansas and a road win at West Virginia, probably, and that was 12 days before the Mountaineers lost at home to Purdue. Throw in an unusual loss at Portland on Jan. 9, and you've got the makings of a just-OK NCAA tournament résumé.
The Zags' last four league games seemed designed to challenge a team with the potential for bubble issues, almost as though the league office turned up the difficulty level. All four were on the road, beginning at BYU on Feb. 20, followed by trips to San Diego, Pacific and, finally, on Saturday, Saint Mary's. Even knowing how consistently dominant Gonzaga has been these past, oh, 15 years, it was hard to look at that closing stretch and not worry just slightly that a loss would turn into three or four. After the Zags lost at BYU (forgivable) and San Diego (RPI: 149), it was fair to reach for the panic button.
As is, Gonzaga is somewhere in the No. 9 or No. 10 seed range. That's safe enough, relative to most of the dreary bubble, but not as safe as you think: A No. 10-seed may well go to one of the final byes in the field. Saint Mary's has lost to San Francisco, George Mason, San Diego, South Carolina, Hawaii and Santa Clara this season. If the Gaels knock off their rival Saturday, should Gonzaga be worried?
In some respects, the fact that the Zags are where they are is a testament to the job that coach Mark Few has done. The Bulldogs faced huge turnover this past summer: All-American Kelly Olynyk, senior forward Elias Harris, glue-guy prototype Mike Hart. Thanks to a broken hand, Gonzaga was without guard Gary Bell for almost all of January. That the Bulldogs avoided losing all but one game (to Portland) says a lot about their adaptability.
But at the end of the day -- or more accurately the season -- all of a sudden the safe and sound, bubble-immune Gonzaga we've come to know is at legitimate risk of falling down among the Minnesotas and Tennessees of the world. A loss at Pacific would have put them there already. Saturday's game means more than a rivalry.