What Gonzaga’s Loss Doesn’t Tell Us

When the Gonzaga Bulldogs were eliminated from the NCAA tournament by the Wichita State Shockers last night, I was annoyed. In part, I was frustrated that my bracket was busted — I had Gonzaga reaching the Final Four — but the larger concern was how the Zags’ early exit validated criticisms of their No. 1 seed that I don’t find accurate.

On Selection Sunday, Kenpom.com ranked Gonzaga 4th in the country — exactly the same place the selection committee put the Bulldogs as the last No. 1 seed. Doubters might contend that this is a product of beating up on their weak conference schedule, and naturally ratings that don’t consider margin of victory had the Zags somewhat lower. They were sixth, for example, in RPI. However, there’s not exactly a history of Pomeroy and company overrating Gonzaga. Before this year, the last time the Zags lost to a lower-rated team in the NCAA tournament was 2004, when they were upset by Nevada in a 2-7 matchup. And the last time Gonzaga was this good, 2006, Kenpom.com seemed to underrate the Bulldogs, who finished 41st after losing to Final Four-bound UCLA in a Sweet 16 heartbreaker.

The legitimate criticism of Gonzaga’s No. 1 seed is that the team never was tested against other elite teams. In fact, Kenpom.com now ranks Wichita State as the best team the Bulldogs played all season. But that would be a more plausible explanation if Gonzaga’s tournament run came to an end at the hands of a top-10 foes. The Shockers are rated similarly to many of the tournament-bound teams the Zags did face, including Kansas State (a 4 seed), Oklahoma State (5) Illinois (7) and St. Mary’s (11).

Of course, Gonzaga lost at home to Illinois and at Butler. But when we break down the Bulldogs’ pre-tournament performance by quality of opponent, it becomes clear that their schedule had little to do with their rating. To do so, I switched to Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System. (I don’t have rankings from before the tournament, but I believe SRS had Gonzaga fifth, behind the three three No. 1 seeds and Duke.) Using opponent ranking and adjusting for location, we can come up with how the Zags’ actual scoring differential in any game compared to expectation for an average team. Here’s how that works out against different groups of opponents:

Split                        SRS
--------------------------------
Total rating                20.9
WCC opponents               22.0
Tournament opponents        21.8
Non-WCC Tourney opponents   19.4

Yes, Gonzaga was at its best in conference play, but the Zags were almost equally good against teams that made the NCAA tournament. In part, that reflects how well Gonzaga played in three matchups against a quality St. Mary’s team (an average of +26.5 in three games, which would make the Zags the best team in the country). Even when you take the Gaels out, Gonzaga’s rating against tournament-bound foes is still commensurate with a top-10 team. Basically, there was nothing from the Bulldogs’ regular season that suggested they would struggle like they did during the NCAA tournament.

And struggle Gonzaga did. The Zags’ ratings from their games in Salt Lake City — +3.5 points above average against No. 16 Southern, and +8.2 points above average in the loss to Wichita State — were two of their four worst performances all season, along with the loss to the Illini and a two-point escape at San Diego in WCC play.

Why Gonzaga played so poorly in the NCAA tournament is a different issue. Was the no. 1 seed too much pressure, especially after an unexpected opening-round scare? Was it nothing more than 3-point defense/luck? I’m not sure. But I do know that what happened in Salt Lake City doesn’t disprove that the Zags were one of the nation’s best teams this season.