Mid-Major Monday: Gonzaga Can Make Another Final Four Run

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Let me make this clear upfront: I do not personally consider Gonzaga a mid-major program. Yes, the Zags play in a mid-major conference, and their sustained Cinderella success at the turn of the millennium drew the blueprint for every mid-major program aspiring for something greater. But Gonzaga reached that promised land, transcending labels to attract marquee nonconference matchups with powerhouses, landing No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, and last year, playing for a national championship.

At least…I assumed Gonzaga had transcended its mid-major label. Yesterday’s Top 16 bracket reveal suggests otherwise.

Less than 24 hours after blowing out Saint Mary’s on the road for a Quadrant 1 win, and less than 24 hours before reaching No. 9 in the AP Top 25 Poll, Gonzaga was nowhere to be found among the top 16 seeds.

OK, so maybe the selection committee doesn’t see it, but I do: The instability among the supposed upper echelon teams this college basketball season translates to a wide-open March. Really, there’s no reason this Gonzaga team cannot capitalize to make another run at the Final Four.

The Zags climbed to No. 7 overall in KenPom.com rankings following the impressive win over Saint Mary’s. Mark Few’s club ranks No. 19 in adjusted defensive efficiency — down from last season, when it led the nation in that category — but Gonzaga’s up to No. 9 in adjusted offensive efficiency. It finished its national runner-up 2016-17 campaign ranked No. 16.

Gonzaga’s offensive production is at the heart of my confidence in this team come March. Six Zags average in double-figures scoring (h/t @_2XL_). Six!

Depth played a central role in the Zags getting to Glendale a season ago. Despite losing leading scorer Nigel Williams-Goss, streaky scorer Jordan Matthews, space-eating big man Przemek Karnowski and versatile sixth man Zach Collins, the 2017-18 Gonzaga lineup remains comparably deep with scoring options at a variety of positions.

However, the trio of Johnathan Williams, Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura stands out, separating Gonzaga from most lineups around the nation. As analytic approaches that emphasize perimeter play and 3-point shooting become more en vogue, a multifaceted front-court look makes a team something of an outlier. Few opponents are equipped to defend such length, evident in the Zags shooting 59.3 percent from inside the arc.

Meanwhile, Gonzaga limits opponents to 43.9 percent on two-point field goals, and are limited in second-chance opportunities. To play the Zags for most competition is to concede the paint.

A hot-shooting foe has the best chance of getting past the Zags. Gonzaga ranks No. 246 nationally defending the 3-pointer, which is far-and-away the greatest discrepancy in this team’s performance compared to 2017 when Gonzaga was the second-best team nationally. In three-of-four losses this season, Zags opponents shot 47 percent or better from behind the arc; the sole exception was San Diego State, the only competitor with the collective length to match Gonzaga on the interior. 

A dangerous 3-point shooting might trip up GU come March, but the likelihood of Few’s team again being matched in the paint is low. That’s a distinct advantage in an open Tournament field. 

Mid-Major Shakeups

The upset bug that bit college basketball’s Top 25 teams over the past week did not spare some conference-leading mid-majors. Georgia State’s 106-92 defeat of Louisiana-Lafayette marked the Ragin’ Cajuns’ first Sun Belt loss, and dropped the total of mids unbeaten in league from seven to six. 

Ron Hunter’s Panthers look like the greatest threat to Louisiana-Lafayette earning the Sun Belt’s bid into the NCAA Tournament — though GSU followed the victory with a loss to Louisiana-Monroe. ULL thus retains a two-game lead in the conference. 

The Ohio Valley, on the other hand, has a tie heading into the stretch run. Belmont’s eight-game winning streak ended last week, courtesy of Tennessee State. The Bruins are now tied with Murray State at 12-2, suggesting this budding rivalry will add another dramatic chapter — that is, assuming the OVC is done with upheaval. 

Belmont’s nail-biting victory over Murray State in the 2013 OVC Tournament marked the last time the conference’s regular-season champion and No. 1 seed won the NCAA Tournament bid. Eastern Kentucky bounced Belmont in 2014 after upsetting Murray State in the semifinal; Belmont’s defeat of the Racers in 2015 led to one of the more controversial at-large snubs of a mid-major in recent memory; Austin Peay emerged from a particularly bizarre OVC Tournament in 2016; and Jacksonville State played its way to the program’s first-ever Big Dance as the fourth-place team in the 2017 Ohio Valley. 

Given recent precedent, perhaps neither Belmont nor Murray State wants that No. 1 seed. But assuming one of the two wins the OVC regular season, Tennessee State may be the bid-stealer to watch from that league. 

The Tigers’ defeat of Belmont marked of the fifth win in an ongoing, six-game streak. Despite a slow start, Tennessee State showed some signs it might be a dangerous matchup earlier in the season, taking Texas down to the wire in December. 

Though the upset bug did not bite every mid-major front-runner, it nearly claimed both Montana (13-0 in the Big Sky) and New Mexico State (9-0 in the WAC) on Saturday. The Griz eeked out a two-point win over a bad Sacramento State team in overtime, while the Aggies completed the season sweep of Grand Canyon at home, winning by just four.

The sweep of Grand Canyon — no matter the margin of victory — positions New Mexico State well to run the table, however. The Aggies face Utah Valley on the road Thursday for another crack at a ~Top 100 win. New Mexico State’s at-large aspirations hinge on going undefeated for the remainder of the regular season regardless, but a second defeat of the Wolverines in particular is vital.