Have Faith in the Mid-Major: Gonzaga is For Real

By Kurt Bullard

After 144 days of college basketball, we’ve come to Gonzaga v. UNC. It’s the mid-major who finally made it over the hump against the conference champion from what people were saying was the best conference of all-time pre-tourney. I’m trying not to fret over what exactly I’ll do with my life after the final buzzer sounds tonight, but until then, I’m doing my best to just soak in the moment.

As Mark Titus often expounds upon, Gonzaga is a victim of an unfair reputation of choking in the NCAA Tournament. The Zags’ two upsets in the past decade have come to an eight-seed Wichita State that would go onto the Final Four in 2013 and a Steph Curry-lead Davidson in 2008 in the First Round. Besides those two “upsets” (both opponents ended the season in the Top 20 in KenPom), Gonzaga has never been bounced early in the Tournament since 2006.  

Yet, everyone was saying that this season seems different —that this wasn’t your father’s (or older sibling’s) Gonzaga. They ran through the WCC with one trip-up against BYU, and also beat Arizona and Florida in the regular season. But besides those two marquee matchups, it is tough to tell how good a team is that doesn’t regularly play great competition.

In a previous article, I highlight a new way of ranking teams in college basketball that tries to better encapsulate a team’s strength of victory by using weighted probability rather than point differential. In the end, it yields a coefficient that represents a team’s strength. I also calculated a proxy for Strength of Schedule by calculating the average coefficient of each team’s opponents during the season. The following plot shows how Gonzaga has performed over the past four years against its SOS.

Gonzaga’s strength of schedule has been worse than in years past, but its performance has been incredibly high. Gonzaga’s dominance over the WCC and its out-of-conference opponents is different from the last four years.

But even if you look at all Division 1 teams this year, no team dominated its schedule like Gonzaga did. No team approaches Gonzaga’s dominance—Wichita State and Villanova come the closest. North Carolina, on the other hand, has a lower coefficient, but it was achieved against a much better schedule. Off to the top right, there’s a cluster of ACC teams—Virginia (above UNC, not labelled), UNC, Duke, and Louisville—who are high achieving teams with strong schedules.  

Looking even further back, to the past four years, Gonzaga ran over its opponents with more force than any other team. While the “Dream Team” Kentucky team from 2015 comes close, it doesn’t eclipse Gonzaga’s coefficient from this year. (To be fair, Kentucky’s SOS was much higher that year than Gonzaga’s this year.)

So, for those doubting Gonzaga’s place in the NCAA Championship game, don’t. Calling this team a mid-major is misleading. They can hang with anyone. The question will be whether the Tar Heels—and their insane rebounding—can hang with them.

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