The Saint Mary’s Gaels offered the Gonzaga Bulldogs a chance to steal Thursday night’s West Coast Conference basketball game in Moraga, California.
Gonzaga refused the offer.
In a game marked by endgame free-throw misses, awful foul calls, and unwise decisions, Saint Mary’s edged the Zags, 70-67. Gonzaga missed big man Przemek Karnowski, a space-eater in the middle who could stop dribble penetration and make it hard for cutters to finish shots. Saint Mary’s ran fluid halfcourt sets in which Gonzaga’s perimeter defenders overextended high, to the free throw line. There was nobody to protect the rim — Karnowski would have filled that role.
It’s true that a late charge call on Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer (1:39 left), followed by another equally bad foul call on Domantas Sabonis (just under 7 seconds left), put Saint Mary’s in position to win. However, Gonzaga led by 15 (50-35) with 13:20 left, and by 10 (61-51) with 6:55 left. The Zags disappeared for long stretches at both ends of the floor, letting the Gaels storm back into the contest. What also needs to be said is that after a blunder by confused Saint Mary’s guard Joe Rahon — who thought he was supposed to foul when his team was up one point with 3.7 seconds to go — Gonzaga’s Eric McClellan had a chance to win the game for the Zags.
Instead, he missed the front and of a 1-and-1.
Even with the two terrible calls, Gonzaga had — and in the case of the errant Rahon foul, was given — a great chance to win. The Zags punted, and now they’re in a more uncomfortable situation.
Without being overly dramatic or exhaustive in one’s analysis, the simple reality of this result is that it reinforces the precarious nature of Gonzaga’s at-large status. After last year’s trip to the Elite Eight, made possible by a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Zagas are once again in a position where they will sweat out Selection Sunday if they fail to win the West Coast Conference Tournament.
Right now, the Zags — if they want to feel secure as an at-large — will need to beat SMU and avoid bad losses to the lower tier of the WCC. Failure on one or both levels will mean that Mark Few’s team will need to win its league tournament to feel at ease in the middle of March.
What follows is not an examination of Gonzaga’s season, but an unpacking of what this kind of event could mean across the country. All sorts of possibilities await us in the NCAA tournament, and Gonzaga’s delicate position in the WCC shows us just how much could happen in the coming months.
You will notice that if Gonzaga — the obvious standard-bearer in its mid-major conference — stands on shaky ground, the same is true for Wichita State. The Shockers did lose a bunch of games in autumn when they weren’t healthy, but the point remains that the Shox are not an at-large cinch if they fail to win the Missouri Valley Tournament. In the Mountain West, San Diego State is not in a position to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team if it fails to win its conference tournament. A bad loss here (to the University of San Diego), a bad loss there (to Arkansas-Little Rock), and a bad loss over there (to Grand Canyon) have all compromised the Aztecs’ position. They could be left out of a Dance they’ve normally joined over the past several seasons.
What we’ve seen over the course of the past two months is a crop of No. 1 and No. 2 seeds which will be noticeably weaker than in the recent past. The absence of at least one or two heavyweight teams this season is conspicuous and pervasive. Playing a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the round of 32 doesn’t seem as difficult a task compared to other years.
That’s where the Gonzaga angle, and the similar stories of Wichita State and San Diego State, come into play.
Gonzaga, the Shockers, and the Aztecs are all weaker than they were last season. As much as it appears that the top two seed lines could be in trouble in the second round of the NCAA tournament, drawing the Zags, Shox, or Team Tenochtitlan could be a gateway to the Sweet 16 and, perhaps, a deep run in March. It would be the ultimate troll job for the top seeds to all make the Final Four this year, but hey, if they get the right draws, it could happen.
Then consider the flip side: As much as Gonzaga, Wichita, and San Diego State have struggled, getting into the tournament and facing a higher seed with a specific set of flaws could turn what is currently a season on the edge into a season full of joy. That’s another possibility raised by the frail condition of Gonzaga’s at-large candidacy (with the same basic dynamic applying to WSU and SDSU).
A third basic possibility is this: None of these teams (GSU, Wichita, SDSU) will even get into the Big Dance. Other teams from their conferences will take their spot on the floor. Those schools could get unexpected opportunities to not only crash the party, but make some noise.
Everything is up in the air this college basketball season. Gonzaga losing to Saint Mary’s — and watching its at-large profile deteriorate to an alarming extent — creates so many more ways for this season to become even wilder than it already is.