Evaluating Gonzaga’s National Championship Chances

For a small Jesuit college in the Pacific Northwest, Gonzaga manages to be awfully polarizing at this time every year. Last night they polished off St. Mary’s to win the West Coast Conference tournament, concluded a 32-1 season and in all likelihood will be the top seed in the West Regional come Sunday. Yet the doubts persist.

The attacks on Gonzaga revolve around the quality of their schedule and their past track record (or lack thereof) in the NCAA Tournament. Since coming onto the scene with a surprise run to a regional final in 1999, the Zags have made it that far only one other time and have yet to reach the Final Four—in spite of several seasons where March came with great anticipation.

So is this the year? Let’s break down the pros and cons…

*In Gonzaga’s favor, this is clearly a talented team. In an age where teams, especially at the college level, lack quality post players, the Zags are loaded. They have two seven-footers in Przmek Karnowski and Zach Collins. Another frontcourt player, 6’9” Jonathan Williams, means they’re going to have a size advantage in virtually any possible NCAA matchup.

The size even extends to the backcourt. The program says Nigel Williams-Goss is only 6’3” but when you watch the brilliant point guard in action, you see his wingspan makes him seem even taller. Williams-Goss can also play in the open floor—in spite of the size, this team actually prefers to play at a fast tempo. And they can shoot the three-ball with Josh Perkins and Jordan Mathews.

Thus, we have a team that can exploit the lack of size most teams suffer from, can play with pace, has an outstanding ballhandler and shoots from the outside. They demonstrated their bona fides in non-conference play with wins over Arizona, Florida and Iowa State.

That’s a pretty good case. The anti-Gonzaga faction can argue back that of those three non-conference wins, the most recent one came on December 3. We haven’t seen Gonzaga step outside the West Coast Conference since the start of the year. It might not be the Zags fault—but this isn’t about assessing blame, it’s about acknowledging the reality that they don’t play in a league that really prepares you for a tournament grind.

And that has been backed up by the tournament performance. They’ve yet to make a Final Four and only twice gotten past the Sweet 16. Particular heartbreaks came in 2006 with Adam Morrison and a crushing loss to UCLA in the regional semis. In 2013, Gonzaga was a 1-seed led by Kelly Olynyk…and flamed out in the Round of 32 to Wichita State.

There’s the evidence of both sides. Las Vegas stands with Gonzaga. The Zags are priced at 10-1 to win the national championship. The only teams with shorter odds are co-favorites Kansas & North Carolina, along with UCLA. Gonzaga’s price is the same as defending NCAA champ Villanova and marginally better than 11-1 Duke.

I also think this Gonzaga team is different (admittedly that should mean less than the considered opinion of the oddsmakers). In fairness to their NCAA performance, we should note that in the most recent past—the last two seasons—they’ve made it out of the first weekend and that includes their most recent run to a regional final (2015). The heartbreaks of 2006 and 2013 came against teams that ultimately made the Final Four.

The case against Gonzaga is credible, but not convincing. I look at this team and see a legitimate Final Four contender. Granted, there are more than four teams I’d say that about and I’m not sure who I’ll ultimately pick to reach Phoenix. But I won’t target the Zags as a favorite that falls early.