By Eliott C. McLaughlin
(CNN) — The Gonzaga Bulldogs have the most wins, 31, going into Thursday’s NCAA tournament. They have the fewest losses, two. They were a consensus No. 1 going into Selection Sunday and are the No. 1 seed in the tourney’s West Region.
Yet they’re still underdogs.
Where’s Rodney Dangerfield when you need him?
Ken Pomeroy, the hoops statistician behind kenpom.com, said he believes the Zags earned their No. 1 seed, even if he doesn’t agree with the polls proclaiming them the nation’s best.
“They’re seeded appropriately based on my ratings,” said Pomeroy. “I will vouch for Gonzaga being a very good team.”
If you feel a “but” coming, your Spidey sense is well-tuned.
Pomeroy, a meteorologist whose work on “tempo statistics” has earned him respect among many coaches and analysts, said he believes the sportswriters and coaches who dictate the national rankings are overvaluing the Zags’ record.
The voters may even be unduly charmed by the prospect of a small-conference school from Spokane, Washington, winning the whole shebang, he said. It is, after all, quixotic to think that a private, Jesuit school named for a 16th-Century saint has the same shot as Louisville or Indiana.
But (there it is!) Pomeroy’s statistics indicate there are three clear favorites in this year’s tournament, and the trio doesn’t include No. 1 seeds Gonzaga or Kansas.
Level playing field?
Hold up, wait a minute. What about the purported parity? What about the commentators’ common mantra that this is “anyone’s tournament,” that there are 20 teams who could hang a championship banner from their rafters?
Malarkey, said Pomeroy: “It was a pretty typical year.”
Pit your bracket against CNN personalities’
It’s true there is no one dominant team, as there was last year when Kentucky (which sent six players to the NBA) winning it all seemed a foregone conclusion, he said. This year’s tournament still has its favorites, however.
“The numbers say Louisville, Indiana and Florida are better than (Gonzaga) right now,” he said.
The Zags come in at No. 4 in Pomeroy’s rankings, but he is quick to say his “ratings represent a team’s average performance, and teams rarely put in an average performance.”
Plus, history dictates averages don’t mean much when young, hungry ballers take the court to compete for the college hoops crown. A bad matchup can sink a clear favorite, as can lights-out three-point shooting or a burst of suffocating defense.
Put simply, Pomeroy said, “The tournament is wacky.”
Butler and Virginia Commonwealth proved that two years ago when they upended everyone’s brackets by charging into the Final Four. So, why couldn’t it happen for the Zags?
They’ve made 15 straight tournaments since 1999, an active streak topped only by powerhouses Kansas (24), Duke (18) and Michigan State (16). In that span, they’ve made it to the Sweet 16 four times and the Elite Eight once.
Gonzaga also hasn’t lost since January 19 — to then-13th-ranked Butler — and while they played only three ranked teams, they didn’t slouch during nonconference play, picking up opponents from the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC.
Where, then, is the love? How can it be that only 5.6% of ESPN’s millions of Tournament Challenge participants have the Zags finishing on top? Why can you tune in to the “The Tony Kornheiser Show” and hear the host repeatedly refer to Gonzaga not as the Bulldogs, but as the “choking dogs”? (Kornheiser actually used the word “chokingest” during Tuesday’s show.)
Why does Las Vegas put Gonzaga’s odds at 12 to 1 to win it all? Why do those same bookies give Gonzaga and Ohio State, the No. 2 seed in the West, near-similar odds of winning the region?
Could it be that in a year when commentators are harping about parity — a year when schools like LaSalle and St. Mary’s get at-large nods over defending champion Kentucky — Gonzaga is just overhyped?
“It’s easy to come to the conclusion that smaller schools are getting in this year,” said Michael Litos, author of “Cinderella: The Rise of the Mid-Major,” but he disagrees.
The Zags “ran through their conference, have some big nonconference wins and they got the No. 1 seed,” he said. “It’s nothing to do with being a mid-major. They won 31 ball games, and they earned it on the court.”
Litos, who also does radio color commentary for Virginia Commonwealth basketball games, said he feels the term mid-major is “hollow and shallow and fairly irrelevant these days.”
Gonzaga’s sustained success has allowed the school to spread its wings in recruiting, attracting prospects from as far away as Tennessee, Minnesota, Canada, Germany and Poland — a geographic reach similar to that of the Indiana Hoosiers.
The Zags pay their head coach of 15 years, Mark Few, more than $1 million, putting him just behind the coaches at historically solid basketball schools like Cincinnati and North Carolina State.
Consider also that Gonzaga’s basketball expenses have risen from $1.9 million in 2005 to $6.1 million last year, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which means better facilities and players.
That doesn’t keep them in the company of Duke ($15.9 million) and Louisville ($15.5 million), but it does put them ahead of Miami ($5.8 million) and Ohio State ($6 million).
‘A whole lot of ingredients’
When you combine these factors — money, recruits, nonconference schedule, years of success — it’s tough to call a team like Gonzaga a mid-major, even if they do hail from the West Coast Conference, Litos said.
Still, there’s some prejudice, he said.
“When people get into their office, close the door and stare down at that piece of paper, they see Louisville, Duke, Kansas,” Litos said, explaining that those teams’ histories have more sway than they should.
“History doesn’t matter. All that matters is what this team can do,” he said. “But we use that to shape our mindset, and that is part of that mid-major bias. It’s similar to why the pundits aren’t picking the Zags to go to the Final Four.”
Asked where they had the Zags in their own brackets, Litos said he had them losing in the Elite Eight to Ohio State, and Pomeroy said he doesn’t do brackets; he just likes to watch basketball.
The consummate statistician, Pomeroy noted that the odds were against the Zags winning, but that holds true for any team. On average, No. 1 seeds win only three games in the tourney. You need six for the trophy.
But Gonzaga has “a whole lot of ingredients that go into postseason success,” Litos said. They have an experienced backcourt, they rebound well, they’re athletic and can run the floor.
Their three-point shooting is decent at 37.1%, but their team 50.4% shooting places them second among tournament teams. Their 77.6 points a game is 12th-best in college hoops.
Add to that the consistency that comes with Coach Few.
“If you need a sailboat to be guided through a storm, you want the best doggone captain out there, and that’s Mark Few,” Litos said.
Few’s ability to adapt to situations and coach his players in the style he’s crafted over 15 years gives Gonzaga the “steady guiding hand” that any team — big or small — needs in the tournament, Litos said.
Underdog? Ha, bring it
Spokane Councilman Ben Stuckart, a second-generation Gonzaga alum whose parents had season tickets in the John Stockton days (1980-1984, when the Hall of Famer played guard), said the team also has moxie.
“They’re a special team. When they get their backs up against the wall, they push though,” he said, pointing to the Oklahoma State game when a final-minute Gary Bell three-pointer helped Gonzaga topple the No. 22 Cowboys.
When the Zags take the floor at Salt Lake City’s EnergySolutions Arena on Thursday, Stuckart expects his birthplace to be a “dead town.” Everyone will be watching Gonzaga-Southern, he said.
Spokane is abuzz with Gonzaga’s success. “Go Zags” and “Love Our Zags” signs adorn homes, yards, storefronts and car windows. During a city meeting on Tuesday, no business was addressed for 20 minutes because everyone wanted to talk Zags basketball, Stuckart said.
As for the “no-respect” talk, Stuckart brushes it off.
The second-smallest city to host the World’s Fair, Spokane welcomes underdog status, and you won’t hear from residents any “indignation about not getting respect,” Stuckart said. “We’re just happy to be from Spokane.”
Since the 1999 run to the Elite Eight, Gonzaga “has been central to our identity as a city,” he said, and it’s been common in years past for people to have high hopes, idealistically jotting down Gonzaga as a Final Four team in their brackets.
“But this year, people are picking them to go all the way,” Stuckart said. “We’re ranked No. 1 in the polls. The next step is the Final Four, right?”
Said Litos, “Lord forbid they win it all. Then, party on.”