Sports

Gonzaga’s massive Kentucky upset still not enough to put it in NCAA conversation



No, Gonzaga, does not belong in the at-large conversation.

Not off of just one win at Kentucky. Not with its woeful résumé. Not based on its body of work.

After the Zags upset on Saturday over the 17th-ranked team in the country, the idea was floated on social media by a few Bracketologists that the West Coast Conference powerhouse was now in the mix to reach the NCAA Tournament. That Gonzaga, despite just one Quad 1 win, a 3-6 Quad 1 and 2 record, and a body of work as thin as a supermodel, was worthy of consideration. That its win over the trending-in-the-wrong-direction Wildcats was a victory that should worry bubble teams.

It should not. At least not where Gonzaga currently stands.

Braden Huff #34 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrates with Ben Gregg #33 during the 89-85 win against the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena on February 10, 2024. Getty Images

If the Bulldogs were to add two more Quad 1 wins, at Saint Mary’s and San Francisco, maybe there would be a case for them. I get they have very good metrics, a NET ranking of 24 and KenPom ranking of 19, but the most consistent thing you’ve heard from the committee over the years is the most important part of your résumé are wins over at-large teams. Gonzaga’s record against such teams is 1-4. Three of the losses have come by double figures. And the one win came over a Kentucky team that has a bubbly résumé, a 2-5 record in Quad 1 games, and is trending towards being a double-digit seed — if its current downward spiral continues — or worse. Another significant part of an at-large résumé is the Quad 1 and 2 record. Below .500 is typically hard to overcome. Gonzaga is three games under. High-profile non-conference opponents like Syracuse, USC and UCLA struggling have really hurt the Zags. The best part of their résumé is the lack of a bad loss. Their worst setback is a road loss at Santa Clara, which is Quad 2.

Let’s compare Gonzaga to some bubble teams. St. John’s, Seton Hall, Cincinnati, Florida, Washington State, Mississippi State, Providence, Texas A&M and Xavier all have more Quad 1 wins and significantly better results to lean upon. Of course, they do have more opportunities coming from power conferences. Some of the aforementioned teams also have work to do to really have a shot at being selected, which goes to show you where Mark Few’s team should stand currently.

Ryan Nembhard #0 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrates in the final minute of the 89-85 win against the Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena on February 10, 2024. Getty Images

I wrote recently that Gonzaga was going to have to win the West Coast Conference Tournament in order to reach a 25th NCAA Tournament. Beating Kentucky doesn’t change that. The only path I see to an at-large is winning out and losing to Saint Mary’s in the WCC title game, and even that might not be enough.

East of burden

The game of the week is in the Big East, No. 1 Connecticut hosting seventh-ranked Marquette on Saturday afternoon, but the two Final Four contenders are hardly the most fascinating thing about this conference, at least not now. As the league’s television deal with Fox nears its conclusion — it expires June 2025 — and negotiations begin for a new one, the Big East could be looking at as few as four NCAA Tournament teams or as many as seven.

It’s not hyperbole to suggest this is a monster month coming up. Two games separate third place from ninth. All of those teams are in the mix to dance, but of those programs, only No. 19 Creighton and Butler feel safe. That leaves St. John’s, Seton Hall, Xavier, Providence and Villanova. It certainly would help the Big East from a bargaining position if it could send six or seven teams to March Madness. That remains possible, although that means two or three of the aforementioned five emerging over the next few weeks. Of late, nobody in that group has stepped forward. The league would like that to change.

Connecticut guard Stephon Castle (5) dunks during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Georgetown. AP

Game of the Week

No. 7 Marquette at No. 1 Connecticut, Saturday, 3 p.m.

Marquette has won seven straight games. UConn has a nation-leading 12-game winning streak. Saturday afternoon in Hartford the Big East’s two premier teams — two Final Four contenders with national championship hopes — meet for the first time this season. Marquette will likely have to sweep the season series to repeat as league champions, adding even more significance to this matchup. A Connecticut victory would put the Huskies in the driver’s seat for a Big East regular-season crown. The battle of dynamic point guards Tyler Kolek and Tristen Newton will headline this monster showdown.

Seeding:

1. Purdue, Connecticut, Houston, Arizona

2. Tennessee, Kansas, Marquette, North Carolina

3. Baylor, Alabama, Iowa State, Auburn

4. South Carolina, Illinois, Dayton, Creighton

Stock Watch

Up – Jeremiah Williams

Three games, three wins, and three impressive performances. The Temple and Iowa State transfer has infused energy and life into the Scarlet Knights, who obliterated No. 11 Wisconsin on Saturday. I’m still not buying into Rutgers as an at-large contender, not with a NET ranking of 86 and Quad 1 record of 2-8, but Williams has changed the dynamic for this team, averaging 14.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists since he became eligible after violating the NCAA’s gambling policy. An NIT berth is realistic, and would salvage what had been a lost season ahead of the star-studded recruiting class that is on the way.

Rutgers’ Jeremiah Williams AP

Up – RJ Davis

He’s averaging 21.5 points per game. Shooting over 41 percent from 3-point range. Committing a career-low 1.5 turnovers in nearly 35 minutes per game. Has scored at least 20 points 16 times. There isn’t a guard in the country playing better than the former Archbishop Stepinac star. Of all the reasons North Carolina has bounced back after last year’s disappointment of failing to reach the NCAA Tournament — from the Tar Heels’ improved defense to the impact of Stanford transfer Harrison Ingram and progress made by five-star freshman point guard Elliot Cadeau — Davis is at the top of the list.

Down – Kentucky

A 2-5 record in Quad 1 games. A 3-6 mark in Quad 1 and 2 games. A Quad 3 loss and just three wins over projected tournament teams. This is a résumé closer to the bubble than a four-seed. After Saturday’s loss to Gonzaga, Kentucky has dropped three straight games at Rupp Arena for the first time in program history. John Calipari hasn’t gotten Kentucky out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2019, an eternity in Lexington, Ky., and this defensively challenged team is trending in the wrong direction as March nears. It’s fair to wonder if Calipari has lost his coaching fastball — it was never elite to begin with — despite his recruiting prowess.

St. John’s coach Rick Pitino. AP

Down – St. John’s

Rick Pitino’s first season has gone from successful to bitterly disappointing. Entering a Jan. 13 trip to Creighton, the Johnnies were tied for first place in the Big East, off to their best league start in 23 years at 4-1. The tournament felt like a safe bet. Now, after losing six of eight games, St. John’s needs a strong finish just to have a shot at dancing. This team has been unable to close out games, with a 3-7 record in contests in which the margin is six points or fewer in the final five minutes. It has blown halftime leads to Marquette (twice), Connecticut (twice), and No. 18 Dayton. Win just one of those games, let alone two, and the complexion of the season is drastically different.



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