Question: How can a No. 1 seed be an underdog in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament?
Answer: When it’s Gonzaga.
In the game “One of these doesn’t belong,” Gonzaga stands out compared to fellow top seeds Villanova, Kansas and North Carolina. Each of those schools has won at least two national titles. The Bulldogs – making their 19th consecutive appearance in the tournament – are looking to reach their first Final Four.
This could be their best shot, entering with a 32-1 record and a No. 2 ranking.
Then again, the same was said in 2013. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 and earned their first top seed but they didn’t survive the opening weekend, knocked out by Final Four-bound Wichita State.
The Shockers became just the latest mid-major bracket-buster to snatch Gonzaga’s place as America’s Cinderella. Butler reached the title game (the title game!) in 2010 and 2011. Another interloper, Virginia Commonwealth, also made it to the 2011 Final Four, five years after George Mason’s improbable run.
Gonzaga has burned so many folks in office pools, the Zags should come with a warning label.
First they ruined brackets as big-time overachievers, reaching the Elite Eight and two Sweet 16s as a double-digit seed in 1999-2001. Then they couldn’t be trusted, losing in the Round of 32 as a No. 2 (2004) and a No. 3 (2005). Their reputation was sealed by the ultimate fail in 2013.
The overall stench overpowers recent, sweet performances in which the Bulldogs met or exceeded expectations. They reached the Elite Eight as a No. 2 seed in 2015 and advanced to the Sweet 16 last season as an 11 seed. If not for blowing a late lead against Syracuse in a 63-60 defeat, Gonzaga would’ve checked off “Final Four” on its resume in surprising fashion.
Sneaking up on unsuspecting opponents isn’t a possibility this season. Yes, the Bulldogs’ schedule and conference remain as soft and suspect as usual. But this team has a slew of advanced metrics, plus passing grades on the eyeball test, that suggests a deep run is probable.
According to Nate Silver, who mapped out mathematical paths for all 68 teams, only Villanova (15 percent) has a higher likelihood of winning the national championship. Gonzaga’s chances of going 6-0 came in at 14 percent, ahead of Kansas (10 percent) Kentucky (8 percent) and North Carolina and Duke (7 percent).
It figures. The Bulldogs have dominated like few teams before, mid-major or otherwise. KenPom.com ranks Gonzaga in the Top 10 nationally in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. The only others to achieve that feat this decade are 2016 Villanova, 2015 Kentucky, 2012 Ohio State and 2010 Duke, all of whom reached the Final Four or won the title.
Coach Mark Few hasn’t led the Bulldogs to the Promised Land but he hasn’t had a squad this deep and talented, either. Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss is a Wooden Award finalist who transferred from the University of Washington. If the Wizards’ Marcin Gortat is the Polish Hammer, then Gonzaga’s 7-1, 300-pound center is the Polish Drilling Rig. Sixth-man Zach Collins is a freshman who’d be an NBA first-round pick if he enters the draft.
Nine players are in the rotation and the drop-off is slight when Few goes to his bench. The Zags can play fast or slow, big or small. They can bomb from outside or bang on the inside. Their average margin of victory is 23.4 points and only BYU came away with a win, sullying the Bulldogs’ perfect record in the regular-season finale. Nonetheless, the selection committee saw fit to make Gonzaga the final No. 1 seed.
“I think it’s a reflection of an excellent season we’ve had,” Few told reporters Sunday after the bracket was revealed. “It’s been beyond great, just a season of excellence when you go 32-1.”
Yet, despite all evidence that Gonzaga is an elite program – generally and the current edition in particular – doubts remain: They’ve never lasted until the tournament’s third weekend. They wouldn’t be as successful in a Power 5 Conference. They shrink in the primetime spotlight.
In that sense, they’re still very much underdogs. The little mid-major that couldn’t … or at least hasn’t.
Eighteen consecutive NCAA tournaments with a 15-3 record in first-round games? A 7-8 mark in the second round? Sorry, that’s not good enough for blueblood status.
“If the worst thing they can say about us is that we’ve never been to a Final Four, well, I think that means we’re doing pretty well,” Few told The Washington Post last month. “I get it. I understand it. But I think it’s kind of shallow.”
Of course it is. That’s why on most office/online brackets, Gonzaga will be the No. 1 seed picked most often to suffer an unprecedented first-round loss. No matter how good they are, the Bulldogs simply don’t look the part of a favorite.
But we all know looks can be deceiving.
Don’t be fooled.