The bubble: For the Zags, new, different and indeterminate

Behold Gonzaga, forever breaking glass ceilings, always doing something outside the norm.
This season, that means lurking about the ledge of the NCAA-tournament cut, which is quite a change around the McCarthey Athletic Center. It’s been fully eight years since the Zags lived on the bubble, and of course, they haven’t failed to make an NCAA field since 1998, or shortly after somebody decided it would be a good idea to cut out the bottom of Naismith’s peach basket.
They’ve been there 24 consecutive times. Actually, they’ve made it 25, because they had just won the WCC’s at-large bid in 2020 before Covid-19 shut down the tournament before it could start.
It’s a bit jarring, then, to hear of the Zags on the bubble. The tournament would get along fine without them, of course, but initially, at least, it’d be like Christmas without a tree. They’ve been to eight straight Sweet 16s and since that bubble-surviving season of 2016, they’ve won more games in the tournament (24) than anybody.
Entering a pregnant final weekend of the regular season in the Bay Area, we can safely say this: They’ve been playing better. Nolan Hickman is shooting better, Ryan Nembhard is more comfortable, Graham Ike has been adept at staying on the floor, and Dusty Stromer looks more like the player he promised back in November.
But these Zags make for a tough read, and if they don’t win the WCC tournament, I suspect the NCAA basketball committee is going to have some long and pointed discussions about their qualifications.
Seemingly, for every argument favoring Gonzaga’s entry, there’s a counter. The Zags are No. 21 in the NET rankings, higher than any non-qualifier has ever been. Yeah, but they have one Quad 1 win.
Undefeated in Quads 3 and 4, they don’t have ugly blemishes. But they don’t have much oomph in Quad 2, either, with just two wins.
They have good metrics, almost uniformly – besides 21 in the NET, 21 in KenPom, 22 by Bart Torvik, 19 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. But in the KPI computer rankings, they’re No. 67.
And yeah, they’re playing better. But that matters to them, not the basketball committee. Years ago, there was a bump for late-season success, but not anymore.
This might be the most enigmatic of Zag resumes in the Mark Few era. They have losses to two of the top title contenders, Purdue and Connecticut, and another to an incipient high seed in San Diego State. There’s not a lot below it, once you get past the breakthrough win at Kentucky, thanks largely to the fact UCLA and USC went belly-up in tandem this year.
Therein, however, is a factor that may help Gonzaga – scheduling intent. Anyone assembling a schedule that includes UCLA and USC in addition to the other heavies isn’t ducking tough games. The committee will appreciate that the Zags’ intentions were good. We’re in an age when it’s next-to-impossible to project rosters accurately.
We shouldn’t obsess over the Quad numbers, either. The committee will drill down farther, and recognize, for instance, that Gonzaga beat Syracuse by 19 points, and the Orange was 18-10 and 9-8 in the ACC entering a Tuesday night-game with Virginia Tech.
And what, you ask, about the eyeball test? Does it matter? Is it even a thing? I suspect that more than the usual committee eyes were focused on the Gonzaga-Kentucky game because of GU’s precarious status. That can’t have hurt.
Is it a factor that Gonzaga has aced the opening weekend in eight straight tournaments? Minimally, if at all. Remember, to include the Zags means somebody else that might be deserving gets dinged. Every year is a clean slate. Perhaps there’s the smallest smidge of persuasiveness, though, in a committeeman knowing the Zags won’t embarrass him. They haven’t had a first-round loss since 2008, to Stephen Curry.
The guess here is that any win over Saint Mary’s gets the Zags in, and, short of that, beating San Francisco at the Chase Center Thursday night would go a long way, although three losses to the Gaels would be hard for the committee to digest.
A story: A good friend and I often used to travel to cover football games, and in so doing would find ourselves, in the days before navigational apps, groping through unfamiliar roads to find our way somewhere. In those moments, he would always implore loudly to nobody in particular: “Put up a sign!”
The committee would appreciate that of the Zags: Play your way into this thing, or show us definitively that, after a glorious quarter-century, you’re finally incapable of it.
By all means, Gonzaga, put up a sign.