TUCSON, Ariz. -- When Mark Few took Gonzaga to its first Final Four and national title game in 2017, .
That 2016-17 team won 37 out of 39 games and, in terms of efficiency, was better than both title-winning teams from Florida, better than hailed 2008-09 champ North Carolina, better than the 2016 Villanova title team. That Gonzaga group's one of the strongest non-champions of the past 20 years.
But it's this season's Gonzaga gang that embodies why Few will one day have a plaque in Springfield, Massachusetts. The 11-1, second-ranked Zags host shorthanded and sputtering North Carolina on Wednesday night, and with a win they will get to at least 12 nonconference victories in seven of the past 11 seasons -- doing so annually against one of the more ambitious out-of-league schedules.
Yet the last person who thought Gonzaga would be in this spot is Few. After his team defeated then-No. 15 Arizona 84-80 in Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday night -- giving Gonzaga its ninth straight win against the Pac-12 and a third road victory this season -- Few admitted that this group has outpaced his own expectations by far more than any other he's ever had.
"The way we looked, and you can ask my wife this, in September and October, I mean, I was literally ready to go on a fishing trip and stay in the wilderness for four months and be found in April," Few told me. "There wasn't one entity in the game we were doing well, including our team wasn't talking. It was a pack of introverts on this team, so it was really hard to live out of that. That was hindering our growth. Then everywhere you looked it was a new guy who didn't know anything of how we did our stuff. … Defensively, our terminology, the night before games what we do, shootarounds, etc. Everything was brand new and (Killian) Tillie was out and experience was our biggest issue coming into this season. Based on what I thought, we have so far exceeded that and we now have a ton of room for growth if we can get healthy."
Gonzaga has no business being 11-1, not after losing four of its six best from last season and not with a roster functioning at maybe 80% capacity. Gonzaga's ability to thrive in spite of health issues is impressive. These are your de facto Pac-12 champs, having defeated that league's three best teams (Oregon, Arizona, Washington) all away from home this season. The fluctuating availability of Tillie -- who tweaked his ankle in the Arizona game -- is perpetually a day-to-day thing depending on any swelling in his right knee, which has long been a problem and required surgery in the fall.
"Our availability due to injuries is our biggest flaw," Few said. "We've been a MASH unit."
Perspective: Against Arizona, Ryan Woolridge (who held Nico Mannion to 3-of-20 shooting) was physically beat up and is still on the mend from knee surgery this summer. Meantime, freshman Anton Watson had his right shoulder pop out of its socket three times during that game. Admon Gilder hasn't been playing at full strength either, Few said. The time between Arizona and UNC was for rehab, essentially.
"They're very organized, have great personnel and they've been there, in the winners' circle, both as a coaching staff and as a team," Arizona coach Sean Miller told me. "They always have a couple members, even if their role changes from one year to the next. A year ago they won 30-some games. You live that, you believe in yourself. And they have a great confidence about that."
And here's Gonzaga again. Not just the best in the West -- though it is that. In fact, let's even go beyond that. Yes, Gonzaga is the best program west of the Rocky Mountains. Between international recruiting dominance, overall win percentage, 20-plus seasons making every NCAA Tournament, it's the champ in the Pacific time zone.
But let's start calling this program among the five best in America. It's at that level. Relegating its elite status to just one part of the country isn't something we do to Duke or Kansas or Kentucky or North Carolina or Villanova. We shouldn't do it to Gonzaga. The team's going to win 30-plus games again. And that'll make for the sixth time in eight years it's happened, when it happens.
"We talk a lot about it in recruiting," Few said. "These guys talk about, 'I want freedom.' I mean, are you kidding me? Nobody plays faster than us, sets more ball screens. We're going to teach you the reads you need to make so when the game comes you just need to hoop."
It's the story of how Gonzaga flipped the script on Arizona. Early on, Miller's Wildcats had a rowdy crowd and a full battery pack on their way to a 19-10 lead midway through the first half. The Zags then outscored Zona 59-36 over the next 24 minutes of gameplay.
"That's the hardest thing to do in sports, man," Few said. "It's hard to turn momentum. When it's not going good, whether it's you're playing golf or you're striking out or anything. Being able to turn is so hard and I'm so proud of them for that. ... Everyone's still learning so much. It's not like last year when we were plugging along [at a high level] and had our whole package in. Now I'm still figuring out what works for these guys and adapting to that."
Miller told me Filip Petrusev, the big Serbian, is Gonzaga's most dangerous player. But the guy he thinks is really good and on the come-up is Joel Ayayi. Heading into the Arizona game, Ayayi (as a shooting guard) had eight more defensive rebounds than anyone on Arizona's roster. And he shoots 40% from 3-point range while not being a ball hog.
Few said Ayayi's confidence in practice last season and this one was outrageous. Outsized. Now we can see why. Just another new face that's helping Gonzaga form into a Final Four contender yet again.
"They've had, from a talent perspective, as good of talent as anybody," Miller said.
With North Carolina absent Cole Anthony Wednesday night, Gonzaga won't receive its due for that win if and when it happens, either. But if the NCAA Tournament started today Gonzaga would be a No. 1 seed. It's easy to see that being the case, again, when March arrives.
Snakebitten Seton Hall susceptible to spiraling
Helicosophy is the study of spirals, meaning it can currently double as a study of Seton Hall. The Pirates were regarded by pretty much every pundit and preseason metric as a top-20 team. But injuries and bad luck have set back SHU to the point where the fan base has to be asking itself if it will ever be able to have nice things. At 6-4 and with back-to-back losses by an average of 15 points, Seton Hall has a huge task and opportunity awaiting Thursday vs. No. 7 Maryland (10-1). A loss Monday would mean a 6-5 start, and the number of power-conference teams to start 6-5 and still get an at-large bid is obviously quite low.
Unfortunately, Kevin Willard almost certainly won't have his two best players in uniform. On Tuesday, the school announced senior stud Myles Powell is out indefinitely due to concussion protocol. He took a shot to the head during the Hall's 20-point loss at Rutgers on Saturday. His return is not known.
"Myles' health and well-being is of the utmost importance as he goes through concussion protocol," Willard said.
Powell's put up 25.8 points on average in the eight games he's played start to finish; he'd be college hoops' leading scorer if you only counted those games. SHU likely won't have Powell, nor will power forward Sandro Mamukelashvili be available. He's out for at least five more weeks, and maybe longer, as he recovers from a broken wrist. If SHU can't beat Maryland, it will almost certainly need to win at least 12 games in a good Big East in order to have a shot at making the NCAAs.
Early NET rankings may be reliable, predictive
In 2018, the NET's debut version --; this year's first viewing -- had 17 of its top 20 make the NCAA Tournament. The four teams that would go on to make the Final Four were in the initial 16.
But comparing that list to Monday's NET reveal isn't apples to apples due to sample size. So our closest peek back would be here, when on Dec. 17, 2018, these were the 20 teams. It's not-insignificant movement from the list only 2 1/2 weeks prior. Eighteen of these 20 made the NCAAs, with 14 of them earning a No. 5 seed or better. Numbers in parentheses indicate what seed each team would receive. Teams with an asterisk made the Final Four.
1. Michigan (2)
2. Virginia* (1)
3. Duke (1)
4. Texas Tech* (3)
5. Kansas (4)
6. Tennessee (2)
7. Nevada (7)
8. Wisconsin (5)
9. Michigan State* (2)
10. Houston (3)
11. North Carolina (1)
12. Buffalo (6)
13. Nebraska (NIT)
14. Gonzaga (1)
15. Auburn* (5)
16. NC State (NIT)
17. Mississippi State (5)
18. Louisville (7)
19. Oklahoma (9)
20. Marquette (5)
It's obviously not perfect or a guaranteed peek into mid-March, but that's a relatively stable look three months out from Selection Sunday. Even the two teams that didn't earn at-larges -- NC State, Nebraska -- combined for 43 wins by season's end.
Have a question, curiosity or complaint? Do @ me. Lob your question my way on Twitter.
In March, how do you weigh a BAD loss (Duke-SFA) versus a GOOD win (Duke-KU). Does the KU win/SFA loss look better or worse than KU loss/SFA win?— alexpm90 (@alexpm90) December 11, 2019
Expanding this question out to its maximum is the essence of the seeding and selection process, Alex. To narrow down the scope, though, I will say this: if Duke winds up being the only team fighting for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed with a loss as poor as Stephen F. Austin (I'm guessing it will be a Quad 3 loss), then it can have an impact on either Duke's chances to get a No. 1 overall seed or maybe even land on the 1 line. Getting past that will require one of the strongest Quad 1 results panels the committee will look at.
Who has the highest ceiling of any team? Answer: Kansas.— Alex Charlton (@Coach__Charlton) December 11, 2019
Now you get to tell us why!
Good question. Kansas is a contender, but I'd go with Michigan State -- still. The Spartans, if fully healthy and with Josh Langford back, can be the best offense in college basketball. The team was top-10 defensively last season as well, and I don't think it's impossible for it to play like a top-10 defensive unit eventually, even if getting into the top 10 in points per possession is too tall a task more than a third into the season. Keep in mind, most predictive metrics still forecast MSU, while it sits at 7-3, as a top-10 team.
OK, actual mailbag question -- What do you think Liberty's ceiling is, and if Lipscomb upsets them in the conference tournament how many other losses can they take and still be on the at-large board?— Ben Wiles (@DadofTwins02) December 11, 2019
Liberty's living large at the moment, thanks to ranking No. 20 in the NET and being only one of four undefeated teams still standing. The Flames' 12-0 start is the best in school history. KenPom projects a 27-3 regular season finish. I think its' ceiling is the Sweet 16 and a 28-win season by the end of it all. This group is still not close to elite on offense and defense, but obviously is streets ahead of the pack in the Atlantic Sun. It can get an at-large with three losses or fewer.
- A light Monday-night slate nevertheless included a buzzer-beater. Look at UC Davis' Joe Mooney, who gets off a weird-looking shot, when his team's down one, to beat Loyola Marymount.
- The Big Ten is almost perfectly imperfect to start its league schedule. Twelve of the 14 teams are 1-1, with only Michigan State 1-0 and Northwestern 0-1. And wouldn't you know it: Michigan State plays at Northwestern on Wednesday night. NU is only 5-4, but here's a great sign for the Wildcats: Big Ten teams are 13-0 at home in league play so far.
- Coaching tremor: Russ Pennell has taken a leave of absence for personal reasons at Central Arkansas. Not a coaching change there just yet. Bears are 0-9 vs. D-I competition this season.
- Arizona State's Romello White has been outrageous the past four games: 16.3 ppg, 14.4 rpg and shooting 84.6% (22 for 26) from the floor.
- Richmond is 9-1 and off to its best start in 34 years. The Spiders play at Old Dominion on Wednesday.
- How many teams could lose their best player/starting point guard, replace him with a sophomore walk-on, and win on the road at Houston? That's what Oklahoma State did on Sunday. Dee Mitchell stepped in for Isaac Likekele, who has been out with illness but should be back soon.
- Credit to Baltimore Orioles play-by-play announcer Kevin Brown, who brought this to my attention: Idaho State is the wackiest team in college basketball. The Bengals' defense is all over the place and seemingly doing the impossible. ISU is No. 2 in 3-point defense (23.6%), yet somehow 337th in 2-point defense (57.9%) and, though it has no control over the final category, 351st in free-throw "defense" (80.5%). Idaho State is 1-5 vs. D-I teams.
- Another factoid, courtesy of ESPN researcher Bryan Ives: NC State has not won on the road in nonconference play against a ranked team in 18 years. The Wolfpack play Thursday night at No. 12 Auburn (9-0). And the Wolfpack just won on Sunday against UNC Greensboro, so ...
- Speaking of UNCG, Wes Miller's team has been on the wrong end of two unlikely finishes this season. First was a loss on Nov. 16 on half-court shot against Montana State.
That was a month ago. Sunday night, déjà vu. NC State with a sensational victory -- from beyond half court. The Spartans lost both these games at home!