November 8, 2012

The State of Zag (Part II)

by Will Green (@Zagacious)

We examined the large quantity of personnel shifts in Part 1 of The State of Zag in an attempt to better recognize where this Gonzaga team is coming from. And we're exploring where the team is coming from because you obliging folks are entertaining the premise that by doing so we can learn more about where the team is going. You're so awesome for doing that.

More revealing and explanatory than the personnel Gonzaga turned over from 11-12 to 12-13, however, are the results the team is still marinating in. Let's examine the last three seasons. (Yes, this number of seasons is arbitrary. I couldn't pick just one, because the data size there is super limited. And if I picked two, I mean two's an odd number, people would say, "why did he pick two?" And four? Well, that's just gaudy. We'll look at three seasons, a nice trio, like the Musketeers or the Blind Mice. Or you can change the channel and I won't blame you).

What do you MEAN I can't substitute six new guys in?!?
In the last three seasons the Zags have gone a combined 78-24. They are 41-4 in the McCarthey Athletic Center over that time, 18-11 in true road games, 4-1 in neutral court pre-season tournaments,  5-2 in "neutral court" venues in the northwest, 0-1 in truly neutral national venues, 3-0 in "neutral court" venues basically next door to the other team's campus, 4-2 in WCC Tournament games, and most importantly, 3-3 in the NCAA Tournament.

So, the team has played exceptionally at home, decently on the road, and surprisingly great in any neutral court games that aren't in pursuit of a national championship (file this trope away, it'll come back).

What about in-league results versus OOC results?

Against league opponents over the past three years, Gonzaga is 40-12. Against non-conference opponents over that same stretch they are 38-12. 

Let's put this another way. Gonzaga is nationally recognized as playing a weak conference schedule and an incredibly tough non-conference schedule (this sentiment is accurate in the sense that Gonzaga's OOC opponents do have a much higher literal average RPI and ranking than its league foes, but inaccurate in the sense that playing a road game in Moraga with a bullseye that large on your back is unreflective of an arbitrary team ranking).

Correct or incorrect, consider that national characterization and then consider this. If this team wins its first three games this season - an entirely plausible Southern Utah, West Virginia and South Dakota slate - it will have a better non-conference record than conference record over the past 3+ seasons. 

What the hell does this mean? Possibly nothing. Possibly a lot of things. Part of it depends on if, and how strongly, the wins and losses correlate with opponent difficultly (again, all rankings KenPom).

Against teams ranked between 76-347, Gonzaga is 58-6 over the past three seasons.

Against teams ranked between 51-75, it is 9-4 in the same time period.

Against teams ranked between 26-50, it is 9-5 in the same time period.

Against teams ranked between 1-25, it is 2-9.*

*(Zagfacts: The two wins in this category, intriguingly, were strong victories over two slow-tempo, extremely defensively-efficient outliers: #9 Wisconsin in Maui and #24 Florida State in the first round of The Dance, both in the 2009-10 season. In retrospect, GU's '09-'10 offensive prowess against elite defenses must have been truly special. Also, GU's '09-'10 defensive prowess against elite offenses, like the top-rated Duke team who destroyed them 76-41 in New York that same season, was pretty blow-worthy)

In-league, anti-Sam forces in triplicate make Gonzaga
lose just as much as out-of-league ones do
*(ZagfactsRedux: If you're thinking the nine losses in this category might unfairly correlate with playing all these games on the road, just, no. Two of these losses were true road games. Two of them were at home. Two of them were on neutral courts. Three of them were in the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga loses to elite teams in non-road settings just as often as it loses to elite teams in true road settings. This is an extremely important concept. Opponent quality is a force that knows little mitigation).

So, in the past three seasons this team has:
  • completely dominated non-NCAA-tournament caliber teams
  • taken two out of three on average from a batch of solid-to-really-strong teams, but never defeated an elite opponent that didn't play offense like it was in a wheelchair 
  • played exceptionally at home, exceptionally in non-NCAA-Tournament neutral court settings, and decently on the road 
  • a nearly identical record against out of conference foes as it does against in conference ones
  • fared equally poorly against elite opponents regardless of setting (home, road, dance, pre-season neutral)
  • not advanced past the second round of an NCAA tournament (this deserves an entire post of its own)
Based on these distillations, Gonzaga basketball is coming from a painfully obvious place.

The program is neither elite or un-elite. It is a strong program with a well-established win-loss threshold right around the 30th-best-team-in-the-country mark. It is big and scary and cool to all the fifth- and sixth-graders, but it doesn't honestly look the eighth-graders in the eye. It will continue to be all of these things until something changes. And in part one, we discussed how the coaching staff is entirely the same, five of the top six minutes getters from last season are the same, and that almost all of the "newness" comes in the form of having to memorize a ton of new names and forget old ones - not necessarily that those new names will alter FewCorp's modus operandi.

If league versus non-league opponents is an academic distinction for purposes of previewing 2012-13, then we're left to focus on our main other results-based factor: opponent quality.

Here are the games on Gonzaga's schedule against even potentially top-75 teams (with ballpark-purposes pre-season KP rank):

vs. (19) Kansas State (BIS)
vs. (20) Baylor
@ (43) Oklahoma State
vs. (44) Davidson or (58) West Virginia or (68) Vanderbilt (neutral, Old Spice Classic field)
vs./@ (47) Saint Mary's
vs./@ (50) Brigham Young
vs. (54) Illinois
vs. (58) West Virginia
@ (64) Butler
vs. (77) Clemson (neutral, Old Spice Classic field)
@ (95) Washington State

Barring the inevitable loss on the Hilltop, we're going to judge the Zags' regular season by these 13 games. I like these 13 games because only two of them feature teams in the 1-25 danger zone; Kansas State and Baylor will most likely be the most critical tests to determine whether or not this team can beat quality opponents.

The statistic Zag fans need to pay the most attention is how these teams' rankings shift over the season - i.e. are the Zags' wins or losses against these teams still conforming with the pre-established 1-25, 26-75, 76-347 breakdown (hint:If that answer is yes, this team still has a problem). 

The prediction, based off of where the team is coming from, is that this will be another 28-7 (13-3)-type juggernaut that nabs either the regular season title or WCC tournament championship, has three or four losses to elite or strong non-con teams, and dies in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The question to ask is if Gonzaga's staff has any sort of tactical decision making process in place to lift the team out of the faux-elite no man's land its ensconced itself in so comfortably. 

Will Green writes about WCC basketball for The Upset out of innate habit. You can crucify him or tell him about interesting new college basketball things @Zagacious on Twitter. 


Tom Briggs said...

Link to part 1 non-functional.

Tom Briggs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will Green said...

Sorry about that. Should be working now.

Hoft said...


First off, so glad to have some Zag-related reading from you. It's been a long dry spell.

Secondly, an objection: can't we pump a little more helium, as they say, into the prediction? Isn't this team more akin in depth and skill to the 08-09 Zags than the sampler platter of the last 3 years? With KP and GBJ helming things, can't we hope that their skills and wisdom will neutralize some of MF's play-calling and substitutional fiascos?

If this team goes 28-7 and is bounced in the second round, I'm going to do something angrily yet pettily self-destructive.

Will Green said...

Good to hear from you, man. Helium isn't really my strong suit. KP and GBJ are a great strength and also a great experiment this year. Will be compelling to watch their strengths (hopefully) progress into even greater strengths. Perhaps I should go back to the start of the MZE and see how quality wins stack up, rather than just examining the last three years.

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