Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Gonzaga Eyes 25th Consecutive NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Berth

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When Mark Few took over as the Gonzaga men’s basketball coach in July 1999, it represented a promotion and a natural fit. After all, Few had been on Gonzaga’s staff since 1990. The Bulldogs were coming off an appearance in the Elite Eight, which was only their second time making the NCAA tournament. It was the start of a run that seemed unfathomable back then.

Gonzaga has made the NCAA tournament every year Few has coached the team. Few is tied with legendary ex-North Carolina coach Dean Smith for the third-most consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (23) with one school. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo (25) and former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (24) are first and second.

This year, Few could surpass Smith on that list, although it is far from certain the unranked Bulldogs (18-6) will be in the field. Bracket experts Joe Lunardi of ESPN and Jerry Palm of CBS both do not have Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament as of now.

Still, Gonzaga took an important step towards an NCAA berth on Saturday by winning, 89-85, at Kentucky. It was the first time the Wildcats had lost three consecutive games at Rupp Arena and led to questions about Kentucky’s porous defense (124th in the nation according to analyst Ken Pomeroy) and the long-term future of coach John Calipari.

For Gonzaga, it was a welcome road victory. The Bulldogs in recent years have become shoo-ins to receive a berth in the NCAA tournament even if they lose in their conference tournament. That was the case in 2019 when Gonzaga lost to Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference title game but still was the No. 1 seed in the NCAA West Regional. Gonzaga has been a No. 1 seed four times in the past six NCAA tournaments and was third and fourth the other two years.

Gonzaga has not been as impressive this year, although the Kentucky win was important. Kentucky was 27th in KenPom’s rankings as of Monday morning, making it by far the best win of Gonzaga’s season. San Francisco (76th in KenPom) is the second-highest ranked team that Gonzaga has defeated this season. The Bulldogs have lost to Purdue (No. 2 in KenPom) by 10 points, Connecticut (No. 3) by 13 points, San Diego State (No. 20) by 10 points, Saint Mary’s (23) by two points, Washington (No. 58) by five points and Santa Clara (No. 116) by one point.

The analytics gurus are still high on Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are No. 19 in rankings from Pomery and Bart Torvik and No. 24 in the NCAA’s NET ranking. But they are far from a certain NCAA tournament team.

Gonzaga has six regular season games remaining, including the finale on March 2 at Saint Mary’s, which is 11-0 in the league. Both Lunardi and Palm wrote over the weekend that Gonzaga will likely have to win all six of those games to be in contention for an at-large NCAA berth should the Bulldogs lose in the WCC tournament.

Missing out on the NCAAs would be disappointing for a Gonzaga team that was 11th in the preseason Associated Press poll despite losing three starters, including three-time All-American Drew Timme, the school’s all-time leading scorer. The voters were high on Gonzaga because the program had two starters back (forward Anton Watson and guard Nolan Hickman) and added talented transfers in 6-foot-9 forward Graham Ike (Wyoming) and guard Ryan Nembhard (Creighton).

Watson, Hickman, Ike, Nembhard and 6-foot-10 freshman Braden Huff are all averaging in double figures. But until Saturday against Kentucky, when Ike led the way with 23 points on 10 of 17 shooting and Watson and Hickman added 17 points apiece, Gonzaga had not defeated a team projected to be in the NCAA tournament field.

This is an unusual situation for Few, who has turned down numerous high-profile jobs over the years and stayed at Gonzaga. The Bulldogs, once an afterthought, have become in the past 25 years one of the nation’s elite programs. Their streak of 24 consecutive NCAA appearances is tied with Duke from 1996 to 2019 for fourth on the all-time list, trailing Kansas (33 straight since 1990), North Carolina (27 consecutive from 1975 to 2001) and Michigan State (25 in a row since 1998).

Gonzaga may not be ranked in the AP poll this week or considered among the national title contenders. Still, with a talented roster and Few at the helm, a remarkable 25th consecutive NCAA berth remains a good possibility.

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