Gonzaga faces critical weekend that could extend NCAA tournament streak or see bubble burst

Gonzaga coach Mark Few watches game action against the Loyola Marymount Lions during the first half at Gersten Pavilion.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few watches game action against the Loyola Marymount Lions during the first half at Gersten Pavilion.

The year was 1998.

The Kentucky Wildcats won their seventh national championship, Antawn Jamison of North Carolina was the national player of the year and Bryce Drew became a March Madness legend with "The Shot" for Valparaiso.

It was also the last time the NCAA men's tournament didn’t feature the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

For the past 25 seasons, excluding the canceled 2020 tournament, the Bulldogs have gone from Cinderella to a tournament mainstay that is nearly always one of the favorites to win a national championship. In the past 24 editions of March Madness, Gonzaga has won 44 games, been to the national championship game twice and made it to the Sweet 16 in the last eight postseasons.

Could all that really end this season?

A spot in the tournament isn’t guaranteed for the Zags, putting Mark Few in a position he has rarely been in as head coach.

Heading into the final week of its regular season, Gonzaga is projected to be one of the last four teams to make the field, according to the latest USA TODAY Sports Bracketology prediction. Sitting in second place of the West Coast Conference – another rare position for the Bulldogs – the last two games of the regular season could be make-or-break opportunities for a team looking to secure another March Madness berth, with trips to San Francisco and WCC-leader Saint Mary’s before the conference tournament.

So yes, it’s an unusual year, but Few knows his team isn’t done yet.

"Everything's still in front of us for what we want to accomplish this season," Few said following his team’s win at Loyola Marymount earlier this month. "You're still playing for something."

How Gonzaga got on the March Madness bubble

One look at Gonzaga’s record and nothing would look out of the ordinary. It's 22-6 record is the most losses it’s had since 2007-08, but the Bulldogs have still piled up wins. Sure it has two conference losses, but so did last year’s team that was a No. 3 seed and made it to the Elite Eight.

Statistically, things look fine there. With a NET ranking of 21, the Zags average 86.1 points per game, sixth best in Division I, and they’re second in the country in field goal percentage at 51.6%. They also win by an average of 16 points, fourth best in the country.

But looks can be deceiving.

The biggest issue for Gonzaga is while it’s taken care of the lesser opponents in the WCC, it mostly hasn’t done the same against stiffer competition. Gonzaga has done a great job in recent years of scheduling tough non-conference games to boost its résumé, but this season, they haven’t been able to secure those wins.

Entering the week, Gonzaga is 1-5 against Quad 1 opponents, much worse than the 6-4 Quad 1 record it achieved last season and the biggest concern for its résumé when the selection committee selects the tournament field. It wasn’t an ideal start to Quad 1 games either, as it lost the first five of them against Purdue, Washington, Connecticut, San Diego State and Saint Mary’s before winning its first one against Kentucky less than three weeks ago.

"The way our season’s going, we need every win possible," junior guard Nolan Hickman said.

The road win at Rupp Arena might have been a turning point for Gonzaga, with the team now on a season-high six-game winning streak. Although four of those wins have been double-digit victories against teams at the bottom of the conference with a combined record of 26-61.

'We got to play our best'

Gonzaga could make all bubble speculation moot by winning the WCC tournament, an event it has won 10 of 11 times and the last four seasons. But what happens this week at San Francisco and Saint Mary's could dictate how necessary it is to win that conference tournament next week in Las Vegas.

The final two games of the regular season this week are Gonzaga’s last chance to win Quad 1 games should it be an at-large candidate. Currently, only Saint Mary's would qualify as a possible Quad 1 and that matchup would likely come in the championship game.

By winning both of their tests this week, a 3-5 Quad 1 record and should put the Bulldogs in solid position to make the tournament. Lose one or both, it’ll be it becomes more of a win-and-in scenario next week.

"We know it's a tough road if we want to do what we want to do for the rest of the year," guard Ryan Nembhard said. "Everybody is going to give us their best shot. We just have to come with the mindset that no game is easy and we got to play our best if we want to win."

Despite the uncertainty of Gonzaga’s tournament status, the team isn’t wavering in its confidence. After beating Kentucky, Few said his squad had chances to win those Quad 1 losses, but they just weren’t able to close them out and the season would “look a lot different” if it pulled victories out of those games. The Zags have also already beaten San Francisco this season and lost to Saint Mary’s at home by only two points.

Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Graham Ike (13) controls the ball against Loyola Marymount Lions center Lars Thiemann (15) during the first half at Gersten Pavilion.
Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Graham Ike (13) controls the ball against Loyola Marymount Lions center Lars Thiemann (15) during the first half at Gersten Pavilion.

What is different about this year's Gonzaga?

Like years past, a large reason why Gonzaga has had success is because of its bigs and the dominance inside of the arc; it averages 49.4 points per game from regular field-goal attempts, second most in the country behind Wright State, while 58.3% of its points come from those shots, which ranks 13th in the nation.

Missing, however, is the top-end talent that has graced the Bulldogs roster recently. Four players have been taken in the first round of the last three NBA draft, including Julian Strawther last season. None are projected to be taken this year. And while the offense has benefited from inside production, Gonzaga is only making 34.3% of its shots from 3-point range compared to 37.9% last season.

Leading scorer Graham Ike believes it can be anyone’s night for Gonzaga, and that’s what makes the team so talented and capable of making noise in March. The win at Kentucky proved what the Bulldogs can do if things are clicking. They've won 11 of their last 12 games since Ben Gregg was inserted into the starting lineup.

And while they may be on the bubble, they soon could be back in the tournament again, wrecking havoc just like they did in 1999, back when this whole streak began.

"We still control our destiny. We know that," Ike said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gonzaga on NCAA Tournament bubble with critical weekend to decide fate