With its 86-69 win over Loyola Marymount Saturday night, the Gonzaga men’s basketball team completed its first undefeated regular season — and became the first Division I team to enter its conference tournament undefeated since Kentucky in 2015.
While this season has been full of uncertainty because of COVID-19 — namely shortened nonconference schedules, multiweek pauses for teams across the nation and over 1,500 postponed or canceled games — Gonzaga’s dominance and 24-0 record stand out.
While many teams’ nonconference schedules were pared down because of COVID-19 factors, the Zags pursued one of the nation’s toughest early-season slates — and won big. They beat then-No. 6 Kansas by double digits in their season opener and topped then-No. 11 West Virginia one week later.
After a positive COVID-19 test wiped out a potential Game of the Year between top teams Gonzaga and Baylor on Dec. 5, the Bulldogs returned from a COVID-19 pause to beat then-No. 3 Iowa by 11.
As a replacement for Baylor, the Zags faced — and trampled — then-No. 16 Virginia 98-75, as the Cavaliers surrendered their most points in over a decade.
In the process, Gonzaga became the first team in Division I men’s college basketball history to beat four AP top-20 teams in its first seven games of the season.
It was the Bulldogs’ fourth consecutive double-digit win as the top team in the AP poll. Today, that streak has reached 21 consecutive double-digit wins, passing the mark held by the John Wooden-coached and Bill Walton-led 1971-72 UCLA squad that went 30-0 en route to a national championship.
Only three teams (regardless of rank) over the past 60 seasons have won 21 games in a row by double digits, according to the Elias Sports Bureau: 2020-21 Gonzaga, 2018-19 Gonzaga and 2016-17 Gonzaga. The previous two iterations of Bulldogs teams failed to extend the streak to 22.
The typical knock against Gonzaga is that it plays in the West Coast Conference, which isn’t comparable to a major conference. KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency margin, which measures how much better a team is than the average Division I team on a per-100-possessions basis, rated the WCC as the ninth-best conference in D-I this year — between the Atlantic 10 and the Missouri Valley.
But adjusted efficiency margin also says Gonzaga belongs in the upper echelon regardless of conference. Since KenPom started the metric in 2002, only two teams have finished a season with an adjusted efficiency margin of 35 or higher. Gonzaga is on pace to be the third, behind the 2014-2015 Kentucky team that lost in the Final Four:
Best Adjusted Efficiency Margin Since 2002
According to KenPom.com
2014-15 Kentucky +36.9
2020-21 Gonzaga* +36.6 (through Feb. 27)
2007-08 Kansas +35.2
How have the Zags gone about it? Gonzaga has mauled opponents in the paint all season, averaging 51.2 PPG, the highest such average over the past 15 seasons. There have been just five games this season in which a team scored 70 points in the paint against a Division I opponent; Gonzaga is responsible for three of the five.
And the paint dominance hasn’t been against just the WCC or weak nonconference foes, either. In Gonzaga’s five games against major-conference teams — Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia — the Zags scored 264 points in the paint, good for 52.8 per game, over a point better than their season average. Those 264 points in the paint are the most by any team in any five-game span vs. major-conference opposition over the past 15 seasons. Even against the stiffest of competition, this team has been a paint juggernaut.
As a result, the Bulldogs are shooting 64.4% from 2-point range, on pace for the highest mark over the past 25 seasons, and are shooting 55.3% from the field, on pace to be the highest since 1988-89 national champion Michigan shot 56.6%.
Don’t mistake this for a plodding team capable only of scoring at the rim in the half court, though. Gonzaga’s average possession lasts only 14.2 seconds, third shortest in the country, and the team scores nearly 23 points per game in transition, also in the top five nationally.
What does this style of play mean for March? Before Gonzaga, the last team to lead Division I in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency while playing at a top-10 tempo was 2008-09 North Carolina. That team, led by Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Tyler Hansbrough, won a championship.
Gonzaga’s combination of efficiency and pace is producing 92.9 PPG. The last national champion to average at least 90 PPG was Duke in 2000-01. Overall, four teams have led Division I in points per game and won the NCAA tournament in the same season:
Led D-I in PPG and Won National Title
Gonzaga leads D-I in PPG this season
1960 Ohio State
As is the story every year, Mark Few’s team will be defined by its ability to make a deep run in March — and, if all goes according to plan, into April.
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