Gonzaga is awesome this year, folks. Like, more awesome than in other years when we thought they were awesome, or just really good, or just really cute, snappy underdogs (who eventually let us down in the NCAAs). No, these Bulldogs are better than those puppy clubs, and a lot of people have noticed. Yet the expansive horde of onlookers is still yet to come, due to Gonzaga’s relative lack of prominent national TV appearances.
Whenever Gonzaga is seeded at or near the top of the bracket, it’s going to gather significant attention and conversation. With All-American candidate Kelly Olynyk also doubling as the most surprising/breakout player in the sport this season (alert: he’s also Shannon Hoon’s spirit come back to life), Mark Few has his best offensive team ever. At 27-2 — boasting the fewest losses in the nation — the Bulldogs are rightful proprietors to a No. 1 seed right now (in my humblest of opinions).
Now, we could debate if Gonzaga should/will be a No. 1 (and Parrish does in the video below), but I’m more interested in correlation and association with like-ilk teams, one specifically being the 2007-08 Memphis Tigers, an obvious choice. If Gonzaga does fall on the top line come Selection Sunday, it will be the first No. 1 seed from a non-major conference since that Memphis club, which should’ve nearly won it all.
It got me to thinking: Are there parallels between the teams? Strange as it seems, we really are in different eras of college basketball now. The groups orbiting Gonzaga at the top of college hoops this season are indeed a different set of collective circumstances and talent than what Memphis was competing with. But it’s worth looking at, nonetheless. The need to inspect contrast is only natural. Can Gonzaga do what that Memphis team did and reach the national title game, downright flirt with winning it all? I think so. Now let’s compare. Or, if you want, first watch Parrish gab Zags for a few.
— That Memphis team entered the tournament with a 33-1 record. If Gonzaga wins out, it’ll be 31-2.
— Think C-USA of five years ago was better than the WCC now? In context, they’re the same. This year’s West Coast Conference is rated No. 10 in RPI, Sagarin and KenPom. Conference USA in 2007-08 finished with identical league ratings in all three systems.
— What about individual rankings in different systems? Memphis was No. 3 in KenPom entering the 08 tournament; Gonzaga sits at No. 4 as of now, but could easily move up if it wins out while Florida/Indiana/Louisville drop another game or two. Memphis was No. 4 in Sagarin entering the NCAAs, while Gonzaga sits at No. 7 — and climbing — today. As for RPI, Memphis was No. 3 five years back, and Gonzaga sits at No. 10 with room to move up if it doesn’t lose another game (third overall seems too high to climb though).
— Road/neutral record: Memphis 13-0; Gonzaga: 12-1. Schedule strength, per Sagarin, saw Memphis at 58 and Gonzaga now at 92. Pomeroy has it at 84 for Gonzaga and 64 for Memphis. Undeniable Memphis had tougher sledding.
— Adjusted offense/defense points per 100 possessions: Memphis was 121.3 on offense (No. 4 in the country) and 83.9 on defense (No. 4). Gonzaga is 120.9 on offense (No. 3) and 89.1 (23rd). The Tigers were more balanced, had the better point guard but did not shoot as well as this year’s Zags.
— Memphis ran the table in its conference, the same as Gonzaga is doing right now. (Norlander Jinx™ officially now in effect?)
— Gonzaga is the first non-power-conference team to be ranked as high as No. 2 since … you guessed it. In general, these are very, very similar profiles. It’s kinda spooky — and really neat.
Now, I did want some more background and perspective on this, so I went to our Jerry Palm and posed the question to him: When did you have Memphis as a clear-cut No. 1 seed that year? When was that threshold crossed? Obviously Gonzaga’s not definitive as a No. 1 yet.
“Memphis was more accomplished outside the league, with two top 20 wins and six top 50,” Palm said. “They only had one loss, at home to the No. 1 team in the RPI (Tennessee), and that wasn’t until late February, so I’m sure I had them as a No. 1 in my bracket pretty early. Memphis was more of a clear-cut No. 1 than the Zags are this year.”
I have to agree, given the wider pool of No. 1-worthy teams out there. By my count, it’s still 12. In no order: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Florida, Duke, Miami, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, Louisville, Georgetown. Gonzaga’s not considered as dangerous/good as that Memphis team, which really was separated from the posse of two seeds (Tennessee, Duke, Texas, Georgetown). And in an alternative world, where pitting Memphis and Gonzaga against each other would be possible, I’d take Memphis of ’08 by about four points. Derrick Rose is a clear separator as well.
But there is one thing to consider and that benefits Gonzaga. At the top of its league, Memphis didn’t have the same competition.
This year’s crop of teams isn’t as good as the pool that 2008’s tournament gave us. It’s not a chasm, but I do think it’s a notable difference, and the relative rankings in overall O and D show that, particularly when you examine where a team ranked in the teens five years ago would be in the top 10 in offense or defensive efficiency in 2013.
Our expectations of that Memphis team were: make the Final Four. It did. We won’t have that with Gonzaga this year, in part because it’s Gonzaga (and it’s underwhelmed in March many times) but also because of the volatility at the top of college hoops. The 2008 tourney gave us a first: all No. 1 seeds made the Final Four. It’s much more likely we’ll see Gonzaga do what Memphis couldn’t (win it all) than witnessing a repeat of all the top seeds moving on to Atlanta.