On Monday, the Gonzaga Bulldogs second their second No.1 ranking in school history. The first time came back in 2013 when they were ranked No. 1 for three weeks during the regular season. The Bulldogs claimed the No.1 ranking by watching the two teams ahead of them, Villanova and Kansas, lose on the road early last week.
Gonzaga remain the only undefeated in college basketball with second-ranked Baylor the only team with one-loss this season. The Bulldogs have non-conference wins, all of which were on the road at neutral sites, against Florida, Iowa State and Arizona.
However, there’s a problem. What’s the problem you might ask? It’s called the West Coast Conference.
As soon as Gonzaga rocked Pepperdine for a 96-49 win on Saturday, it was inevitable that when the rankings came out Monday that the Zags would be ranked first overall in the AP Poll. In the lead up to, and after the rankings were unveiled, sports commentators across the country asked the same question: Does Gonzaga deserve the No. 1 ranking?
Why, after thirteen weeks into a regular season, would they ask that question when the lone undefeated team involved? It’s because Gonzaga plays in the West Coast Conference.
To say that Gonzaga have it rough playing in eastern Washington is an understatement. Isolated from the rest of the college basketball landscape, the Zags often get overlooked until the NCAA Tournament rolls around. After all, the last time Gonzaga wasn’t in the tournament was in 1998 so they’re bound to be in it each and every year. The Zags have the same name brand recognition as other perennial non-football programs such as Butler and Georgetown.
And yet, by not playing in the Big East or A-10, Gonzaga’s conference schedule leads them to be forgotten for a sizable part of the regular season. WCC doesn’t have a major TV contract like the Big East does with FOX. The WCC does have a deal with ESPN, that runs out following the 2018-19 season, that gives the conference 48 games a season spread over its network. However, when the strong majority of those games find themselves on ESPNU or ESPN3, it kind of throws a wet blanket on the deal.
The reasoning behind “Does Gonzaga deserve to be ranked No.1” stems from playing a rather predictable and thin conference schedule. Gonzaga can only play Saint Mary’s twice a season. After that, not much has happened in the conference over the past two decades.
For Gonzaga to earn the same respect as other non-Power Five programs, they only have their conference and their location to blame.
If Gonzaga could play in the Big East or the A-10, they would in a heartbeat. They would’ve already made the move by now. However, there’s a big difference between Spokane, Washington and Omaha, Nebraska (Creighton) when it comes to travel. With each road game resulting in a minimum of changing time zones twice, Gonzaga would be voluntarily giving themselves a Hawaii-like conference schedule. Is it beyond reason? No. Is it ideal to maintain consistent performance levels? No. Not to mention how Gonzaga would also have to have all 19 of their athletic programs face a similarly daunting travel schedule.
It’s not as if there are the pieces out west to have a respectable conference. Those pieces though are not what they once were.
San Francisco, led by HoF Bill Russell, most notably won two NCAA Tournament championships in the 1950s. Following a litany of violations that was capped off in a voluntary in 1982, the Dons have only made the tournament once in 1998.
Across the state, Seattle University once made it to the NCAA Tournament title game in 1958 thanks to HoF Elgin Baylor before losing to Kentucky. During a period in the 60s, the program produced had more active NBA players than any other school in the country. In 1980, following a recession that hit the US as well as rising costs to compete at the D1 level, Seattle decided to drop its athletic programs down to NAIA. The Redhawks have only been playing at the D1 level since 2008 and, having to play in the fledgling WAC, it shows.
Loyola Marymount, coached by Paul Westhead and his innovative coaching scheme dubbed “The System”, had a recent string of success in the late 80s. The pinnacle was the 1989-90 squad which holds a NCAA record for highest scoring team with an average of 122 points per game. However, following the tragic death of star player Hank Gathers, the Lions’s Elite Eight run in 1990 was their last appearance in the tournament.
Pacific had a period in the late 60s where they made the Elite Eight. Pepperdine had a string of tournament appearances in the early 80s, including a two-point loss to Jimmy V’s North Carolina State. Santa Clara made the Final Four in 1952. Portland…Portland has women’s soccer.
The addition of BYU to the WCC in 2011 and the pedigree they bring does help. That’s, once again, just two games on the schedule.
With a majority of their conference schedule written off as easy wins each season, Gonzaga can only do so much to impress critics and voters. Tomorrow’s game on the road versus BYU and a meeting with Saint Mary’s on the road on the 11th, Gonzaga have just two more remaining games until an inevitable rematch with Saint Mary’s in the conference tournament that will perk up the ears of anyone who isn’t a Bulldogs faithful.
As a No.1 seed, that matters. By competing in a weaker conference then most other elite programs, Gonzaga are almost expected to remain undefeated until the tournament. Outside of a close loss to Saint Mary’s on the road, as long as the Gaels don’t hit a bump in the road themselves, any loss from here on out would put getting a No.1 seed in tournament in jeopardy.
That’s just the fine line the Gonzaga Bulldogs have to walk playing in the WCC.