LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 09: Joel Ayayi #11 and Jalen Suggs #1 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs hug on the … [+]
Could there be a chink in Gonzaga’s armor, or was their close call against BYU in the West Coast Conference tournament final – where they had to come back from a double-digit deficit to win 88-78 – just a hiccup on the way to securing a national title?
That’s something worth pondering for those who are hunting for value on this year’s NCAA basketball futures odds.
As a rule, one should be very careful about placing too much weight on conference tournament results, especially when they involve teams that have more or less punched their ticket into the Big Dance. When it comes down to it, getting ready for the Big Dance is the primary goal for most legitimate contenders, so the level of motivation always comes into play, making things tricky at best and often risky for bettors.
But Gonzaga came off as a different case; after all, they have a chance to do something truly historic.
Not since Indiana in 1976 has a team won the national championship with an unbeaten record. But, having come through the season thus far at 26-0, we have before us a team that appears fully capable of doing just that.
Oddsmakers at BetOnline undoubtedly agree as they have been installed as the +230 favorite to ultimately cut down the nets.
The Bulldogs are an offensive machine. They not only lead the nation in scoring, at 92.1 ppg, they’re almost seven points per game ahead of the next team on the list. It should come as no surprise that in the critical metrics of Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and Effective Field Goal Percentage, they sit atop the 347 teams that played Division I basketball this season.
If you’ve seen them play, we don’t need to explain to you that this isn’t one of those “deliberate” teams, working the ball around the half-court endlessly for a shot. They like to operate at an accelerated pace when they have the ball. In fact, only two teams in the nation use up less of the shot clock than they do.
And although the WCC is not a deep league, Gonzaga has not been the beneficiary of weak opposition either, having beaten four teams ranked among the top fourteen in the nation. On top of that, they also own three wins over a conference foe (BYU) that had been #20 in the NCAA’s NET rating – a key determinant when it comes to seeding and the awarding of at-large bids.
What I like about Gonzaga in terms of being a right fit for NCAA tournament competition is that they can play against radically different styles employed by their opposition and still manage to prevail….with confidence and swagger.
For example, they took an up-tempo Iowa team that is third in the nation in scoring and scored a double-digit win (99-88). But they also faced Virginia, the last school to win the national tournament, and a notoriously deliberate team that is dead last in the nation in Adjusted Tempo, allowing just 60.1 points per contest, and ran them out of the gym, hanging 98 points on them in a 23-point victory.
The biggest scare yet was an 87-82 win over West Virginia, which, at last look, was ranked 10th in the nation in the Associated Press poll. Every other win has come by double digits.
Here is a team that offers a true inside-outside balance. Drew Timme is a 6-10 forward/center who shoots 67% from the field. Corey Kispert, a 6-7 forward, is 44.4% accurate from three-point territory. Going into the BYU game, Timme was #2 and Kispert #10 in the national player rankings from KenPom.com, arguably the most respected resource for college hoops analytics.
Kispert has since lost that #10 ranking, but it was to a teammate, freshman Jalen Suggs, who has turned out to be a legitimate game-changer.
Suggs, who hails from Minnesota, is the most highly-touted recruit head coach Mark Few has ever brought to the Spokane campus. The 6-4 guard blends in perfectly, because he is full throttle up and down the floor. Suggs is opportunistic on defense (2.0 steals per game) and high-energy on offense. He contributes everywhere (14.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists per game).
And he can take things over when he needs to. As Gonzaga was mounting a comeback against BYU in the WCC final, behind 14 points at one time, Suggs was huge down the stretch, with a pair of three-pointers in the final minutes and 23 points for the game. The consensus is that he will be among the top five players chosen in the next NBA Draft, and he may even have an outside shot at beating out Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham for the top position.
Unlike a lot of college teams, Gonzaga does not go three-point crazy. Sure, with the aforementioned Kispert, as well as guard Joel Ayayi (39.7%), they can get it done from long-range when needed. But triples account for only 32.3% of their field goal attempts, and that’s a low percentage in this day and age.
Instead, what makes the ‘Zags especially dangerous is that they have mastered the art of getting the easy baskets. They are a terror on the fast break, of course, and they’ve made 63.9% of their two-point shots, which is best in the nation. You literally have to “pick your poison”with this crew.
If there is an Achilles heel, it would have to be on the defensive end. And this may be nit-picky, but according to KenPom, Gonzaga is 103rd in the country in defending three-pointers and 72nd in defending inside the arc. They did allow BYU to get off to a 53-41 halftime lead in the WCC final, with the Cougars shooting 67.6% from the field.
So who might be able to stop this runaway train? Possibly a team that can shoot over them.
Just as no one is shocked that Gonzaga is the favorite to win the national title, it’s not a big surprise that Baylor is in second position (+450). The Bears (21-1) may have gone undefeated as well, had they not been slowed by a COVID crisis that forced them to sit out three weeks in February. They came back rusty, barely escaping against an Iowa State team that finished 2-21 and 0-18 in the Big 12 Conference. Then they were soundly beaten by Kansas (71-58).
In those two games the Bears shot just 14 of 51 combined from three-point territory (27.5%), and that was a killer. You see, there is no team in the country that has been better from downtown than Baylor, which has nailed 42.9% of its three-point attempts. So getting back into a rhythm has been critical.
And they’ve done just that. In the regular-season finale, the Bears went a sizzling 15 of 24 from beyond the arc against Texas Tech and Chris Beard’s intense defensive scheme in an 88-73 win.
Jared Butler, one of the nation’s top players, is only part of the hit parade with 44.4% from deep and 17.1 points per game. Davion Mitchell has made 47.2% of his triples, with MaCio Teague just below 40%.
What makes Baylor even more effective on offense is that they can create second chances for themselves. The Bears are hyper-aggressive on the glass, ranking fourth in the nation in Offensive Rebounding Percentage. And in case you think that’s a one-off, it isn’t. Scott Drew’s team has been in the top ten in that category for eight consecutive seasons.
Aside from 6-10 Congolese center Flo Thamba, who plays limited minutes, they are putting three or four guards out there much of the time, which makes it all the more noteworthy.
Baylor may also be able to challenge Gonzaga’s tempo, because they are very good at forcing turnovers. On almost 25% of their opponent’s possessions, they have coughed up the ball, one way or another, and that is third-best in the nation. Of course, there’s a flip side to that; if the ‘Zags can overcome Baylor’s pressure, it could become a long night.
With nine wins over teams ranked in the AP Top 25, Baylor obviously belongs at the forefront of the national title discussion, regardless of what happens in the Big 12 tourney.
Surely there are other possibilities out there.
The Big Ten was probably the best conference in the nation this season, and it includes the #3 (Illinois, +900 to win the national title), #4 (Michigan, at +575) and #5 (Iowa, at +1400) teams in the Associated Press poll. One can easily visualize one, two or all three of them making it into the Elite Eight.
However, it is worth pointing out that, as mentioned, Iowa has fallen by double digits to Gonzaga, while Baylor took the measure of Illinois by 13 points in the Jimmy V Classic.
Are you looking for a dark horse? How about West Virginia, which is priced at +2800?
The Mountaineers would seem to fit the textbook definition of a “tough out.” They have, in fact, given life-and-death to the top two teams in the country; we have already talked about them pushing Gonzaga before losing 87-82, in a game where, incidentally, they held Suggs to just four points. And they took Baylor into overtime before losing 94-89.
Coach Bob Huggins isn’t necessarily doing the whole “Press Virginia” thing all that much, but these Mountaineers are outstanding in the respect that they really know how to get to the free-throw line. In those games against Gonzaga and Baylor, they took 65 combined shots from the charity stripe. And they induced Drew Timme of the ‘Zags and Jared Butler of the Bears – both of whom will be on somebody’s All-America team – to foul out. That’s the kind of quality that can come up big.
But, I admit, not big enough.
It’s almost a guarantee that we’ll see some surprises along the way. But from where this reporter sits, Gonzaga looks to have the right team at the right time with the right stars.
I have spent the majority of my professional career working in all areas of the I-Gaming industry, getting a front-row view to its rise in popularity across the US market