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College Basketball

Gonzaga Is A Bubble Team Now

1:13 PM EST on January 14, 2024

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 11: Adama Bal #4 of the Santa Clara Broncos reacts after making the game winning basket against the Gonzaga Bulldogs at Leavey Center on January 11, 2024 in Santa Clara, California.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images|

Adama Bal and Santa Clara fans celebrate after his game-winning shot against Gonzaga on Thursday.

Gonzaga has been ranked 143 straight weeks in the AP men’s Top 25 poll, tied for the 10th-longest streak of all time. It will likely end when this week’s poll is released on Monday. The Zags' 77-76 loss Thursday to Santa Clara—the Broncos’ first win after 26 straight losses to their conference opponent—dropped them to 11-5.

The AP Poll primarily functions as a roundup of how media members feel about teams, but there's more concerning news for Gonzaga. The Zags have fallen out of some bracket projections, sitting squarely on the bubble in others. They are 0-4 in Quadrant 1 NET games, a metric used by the selection committee to pick the field. The Athletic looked back and found that no team has ever received an at-large bid with no Quad 1 wins. The Zags’ best victories are on neutral courts against Syracuse (11-6, 80th in the NET) and USC (8-9, 90th in the NET). Those will be Quad 2 wins at best, and may not even be that high if the Orange or Trojans fall out of the top 100.

Gonzaga still has a few more possibilities for Quad 1 wins within the West Coast Conference. The Zags have yet to play conference rivals Saint Mary’s and San Francisco, both competitive squads at the top of the WCC standings. Right now, the road games against those two teams would count as Quad 1 games. Also, there’s a non-conference road game against Kentucky on Feb. 10. Still, there’s a chance that Gonzaga enters the conference tournament with a gaudy record but not much behind it. The Bulldogs have made every NCAA men's tournament since 1999. This could be the year the streak ends.

Gonzaga’s main issue this year is the backcourt, usually the deepest part of the team. But Malachi Smith left for the NBA, defensive whiz Hunter Sallis transferred to Wake Forest, and Rasir Bolton exhausted his eligibility. Steele Venters, a transfer from Eastern Washington, tore his ACL one day before the season opener. That left a backcourt of Ryan Nembhard and Nolan Hickman. Dusty Stromer, a freshman expected to come off the bench, is also getting starting minutes. That’s basically it. The only other option would be freshman Luka Krajnovic, but he’s out with a broken hand.

This lack of depth has left Gonzaga really weak from outside. The Zags lost a lot of three-point shooting: Smith hit 45-of-89 threes last season (50.8 percent), and Julian Strawther, drafted by the Denver Nuggets, hit 40.7 percent. Sallis, who wasn't putting up many threes in Spokane, might’ve helped Gonzaga this season: At Wake Forest he’s averaging 5.8 attempts per game and hitting 38 percent of them.

What Gonzaga has this season is an offense that hits 31.7 percent of its threes, a rate that currently ranks 261st in the country. It's head coach Mark Few’s worst three-point shooting team of his tenure. Gonzaga never uses a strategy reliant on the three; the team is usually around 300th in three-point rate. (They’re 307th this season.) But the lack of shooting is hurting them.

Gonzaga’s loss to Santa Clara was a prime example. The Bulldogs were 2-for-20 from behind the arc, and missed their first 10. Here’s a generous analysis of those shots: One was contested, three had a closing defender who didn't get all that close, one was a stepback three, and the other five were wide open. One of those wide-open threes was an airball. The Zags are good enough inside that they’re still getting lots of offensive boards, but teams can afford to double them down low and avoid fouling. The lack of a three allows a team like Santa Clara to keep the game close and, say, hit a game-winning layup in the final seconds for the upset win.

Even setting aside Thursday's case of especially bad three-point luck, there isn't much help on the way. Krajnovic wasn’t expected to play much this season, but he might have to enter the lineup when he returns from his injury. Hickman and Nembhard already play about 88 percent of Gonzaga’s minutes. How much longer can they be the only two guards? Gonzaga as a whole is 350th in bench minutes this season. The Zags have managed an incredible streak of success, but they’re vulnerable this season, and other teams within the WCC might start to catch on.

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