On the eve of the 2021 NCAA tournament, the case for the Gonzaga Bulldogs was simple. They looked like the best team in the history of men’s college basketball and could claim that mantle if they only finished the job. “Gonzaga Could Become the Greatest Men’s College Basketball Team Ever” was the headline on my tournament preview in Slate, and it was true: Gonzaga could have done that.
On the eve of the 2022 NCAA tournament, the case for Gonzaga was simple again. The Bulldogs were No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency ratings, No. 1 in NCAA evaluatory metric NET, and the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament for the second year in a row. It was all there for the Zags’ taking. They weren’t the all-time team of 2021, but for a second year in a row, nobody looked better.
On the eve of the 2023 NCAA tournament, the case for Gonzaga is a little bit different. This time around, the Bulldogs approach March Madness from a different angle than the one they took before losing the national title game to Baylor in 2021 or bowing out in the Sweet 16 in 2022. This year, Gonzaga is not the most elite team in college basketball, but one of those that is playing its best ball at what analysts would call “the right time.” Gonzaga’s juggernaut teams couldn’t win it all, but maybe a team that is merely excellent can.
The Bulldogs were not in contention for a No. 1 seed, and the most popular computer models that judge college hoops teams do not see them as the cream of the crop. They lost several games early in the season and were reduced to the fringe of the national picture by the time they started their customary beatdown of their peers in the West Coast Conference. In fact, though they were great, the Zags didn’t even win the WCC regular season championship. That went to Saint Mary’s, the Bay Area school that has built a secondary mid-major Western powerhouse to the Spokane-based Gonzaga dynasty in recent years. But after dropping one meeting to the Gaels, the Bulldogs beat them in late February, then destroyed them, 77–51, in the WCC tournament final on March 7. Gonzaga had started the year third in Pomeroy’s ratings before falling as low as 18 in late January. Now coach Mark Few’s team is up to eighth in the Pomeroy ratings, riding a nine-game win streak, and sitting as the No. 3 seed in the bracket’s West region. They’ll get to play reasonably close to home.
I promised in 2022 that I would continue to pick the Bulldogs in my bracket each year until they eventually cleared the hump. For weeks, I feared that by picking Gonzaga, I would be going through the motions. My heart wouldn’t really be in it. Thankfully, the Gonzaga rebound has once again made it a wholly defensible position to pick the Zags to finally win the national title. This, my fellow Gonzagites, is our time.
2023 Gonzaga looks a ton like 2022 Gonzaga, 2021 Gonzaga, or [insert any year since 2000, when Few took over] Gonzaga. The offense remains a powerful machine that runs brilliantly on a specific setting. The Zags play at lightning tempo, though they operate slightly more slowly this year than in the past handful. They work the ball inside, feeding center Drew Timme until he stops hungering for the ball, which he never does. Timme is in his third year of averaging between 18 and 21 points for Gonzaga, and his 18-point night in the WCC final made him the all-time leading scorer in a program with lots of prolific scorers. Gonzaga doesn’t build its offense around the 3-pointer, attempting about one in three field goals from outside the arc. (That rate is 303rd nationally, per Pomeroy.) But the Zags drill them when they take them, to a shiny 38.4 percent tune as a team. Wing Julian Strawther and a trio of guards (Rasir Bolton, Malachi Smith, and Nolan Hickman) do most of the damage in that space.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Gonzaga still looks so Gonzaga-esque. In addition to Timme giving Few a full four-year run, the Zags have continuity all over their rotation. The only regular player who wasn’t on the team last year is Smith, who came from Chattanooga after leading the Mocs to a tournament bid. Gonzaga has had no problem plugging players into Few’s system over the years, whether they be freshman megarecruits like center Chet Holmgren and guard Jalen Suggs (who both became NBA lottery picks) or transfers from all over. But this year’s team has barely had to do that. These Zags are used to playing with each other. Naturally, they’re back to No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency, the position they held three years in a row before plummeting all the way to No. 3 out of 358 teams last year.
That’s not to say Gonzaga is exactly the same. Holmgren’s exit after one year means Gonzaga is back to primarily playing through one big man, Timme, rather than two. Maybe not surprisingly, the interior defense has softened up a lot without Holmgren. Gonzaga has surrendered a 51.2 opposing field goal percentage on 2-point shots, 228th in Division I and comfortably the worst in Few’s tenure. Last year, Gonzaga was No. 1 in that stat at 41.8 percent. Here the Zags have an honest-to-goodness weakness, not just an area where they are unspectacular. Two of Gonzaga’s five losses came on nights when they got destroyed inside the arc, surrendering 60 percent make rates or better to Saint Mary’s and Texas.
And indeed, for that or any other reason, a piano could fall on Gonzaga’s head at any moment. That piano has always landed on them at some point in this tournament, whether in the national title game (where they’ve lost twice since 2017) or some time much sooner. But we shouldn’t expect Gonzaga to exit quickly. The team has made seven Sweet 16s in a row, going back to 2015, when it ended a five-year stretch of opening-weekend exits. Gonzaga’s default status under Few is to be somewhere in the mix as the tournament starts to get long.
This year’s team has the juice to remain there if it plays anywhere near its potential. Gonzaga beat eventual No. 1 seed Alabama by 10 back in December, a month after it walked past an underwhelming but talented Kentucky. The Zags also have those two Saint Mary’s wins. All together, it’s enough to spot potential, even though Gonzaga lost a 1-point decision to Baylor and lost in much less threatening fashion to Texas (by 19 points) and Purdue (by 18). The only grisly thing Gonzaga did was lose at home by a point to Loyola Marymount (current Pomeroy ranking: 107th). You can find blemishes on the 2023 Zags without looking nearly as hard as you’d have had to search the past few years.
So it’s a good thing that there are blemishes on every team in college basketball. For the first time since 2006, there’s not a single team in the Pomeroy ratings with an adjusted efficiency margin of 30 points per game—a projection of how teams would do against a standardized opponent on a neutral floor. There’s a team with just two losses, Houston, and while the Cougars are great and a proven Final Four program, they benefit from a light schedule in the American Athletic Conference. Every other high seed has lost at least four times and to teams much, much worse than Gonzaga. The NCAA tournament is always a dangerous place, for even the best teams. But in 2023, every single team feels built to get got.
And thus we circle back to our Bulldogs. The past two years, the pertinent question to ask about Gonzaga at tournament time was simple: Who was built to beat them? Or, maybe, would Gonzaga mess this up?
This time, the Gonzaga question is at least a lot less angsty: Why not?