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SALT LAKE CITY — Every season for the past five years, I've been drawn to a particular trend that compels me to perform a deeper investigation. And that is Gonzaga's dominance of the West Coast Conference.
With each passing year, Gonzaga further improves the art of pummeling WCC competition just a little bit more. After dispatching at-large hopeful BYU by 33 on Saturday in Provo, the Zags are attempting to put together the most dominant conference season in the past 25 years. That's something they are basically doing every season at this point.
Here are the top five seasons in average margin-of-victory in conference play since 1997:
Of course, it's much easier to set records over a partial season than a full season, and Gonzaga still has two games remaining against Saint Mary's, which will undoubtedly reduce their average margin of victory. Still, the Zags figure to beat out 1999 Duke again for the most dominant non-Gonzaga season in the modern era.
Now, the standard response from folks who are particularly (and bizarrely) triggered by reports of Gonzaga's success is that they are beating up on relatively weak competition compared to college basketball's other top teams. And this is true. The WCC is not on the level of other leagues that have produced top seeds in the NCAA Tournament in the past decade.
But the Zags' domination of the league is a recent development. Prior to 2019, their most dominant season was in 2008, when they outscored conference foes by an average of 20.1 points per game, a figure that ranks 13th since 1997. Their otherworldly margin of victory numbers are an indication that the program has gone from lovable outsider capable of a deep tournament run, to national bully that is regularly one of the favorites to win it all.
Of course, Gonzaga wouldn't be able to post the gaudy scoring margins in other conferences. This fact gets twisted by critics who say Gonzaga wouldn't be competitive in other leagues. And yet, the Zags play enough games against power conference teams to remove any doubt of how they would perform in those leagues.
Since the 2017 season, they've gone 39-11 against teams from the six best conferences — Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, Big East, ACC and SEC — with just six of those games being played on Gonzaga's home floor. (To be fair, just six of those games have been true games as well. Most of these games have been played either in the NCAA Tournament, in-season tournaments, or other showcase games on neutral floors.)
That 78% winning percentage sounds impressive, but we need to compare it to something. How about comparing it to every other team in the country? Here are the teams with the best winning percentage against power conference teams since the 2017 season:
(To be completely accurate, UC San Diego technically tops this list at 1-0 by virtue of their win earlier this season over Cal. Shout-out to the Tritons.)
No team in the country has a better winning percentage against power conference teams since 2017 than Gonzaga. In fact, the achievement is even better than these numbers indicate. Because most of Gonzaga's games against power conference teams are in the NCAA Tournament or in made-for-TV regular-season matchups, they aren't playing the likes of Boston College, DePaul and Northwestern.
Gonzaga's opponents in these games posted an aggregate record in their own conferences of 537-331 (.618) in the seasons that Gonzaga played them. Unlike the other teams on the list, the Zags are playing above average teams in the best leagues in the country and winning 78% of the time.
The only defense for those triggered by Gonzaga's greatness is that the 39-11 is over a smaller sample than for other teams on the list. But if you think 50 games is too small of a sample to make a judgment, then every single season in college basketball history is too small of a sample to draw a conclusion from. And while I can appreciate a nihilistic view of the world from time to time, that's going a bit far.
What is truly a small sample is the NCAA Tournament. Here, Gonzaga has owned the last six years as well, winning 15 games since 2017, six more than any other team in the country besides Michigan (who has won 12). That's not even fair to the Zags, who were slated to be the second-overall seed in the 2020 tournament before it was canceled. Their dominance in tournament wins would have likely increased had the event been played.
Still, the last obstacle for undisputed domination of the sport is a national title. For the second consecutive season, the Zags will be the pre-tournament favorite to win it all. And for the second consecutive season, their chances of winning it all will be significantly less than 50%. Probably less than 25%.
And if you wonder why it's so hard for the favorite to win the title, Gonzaga's recent history is a great illustration of that. They've dominated power conference teams like no other team has and still lost those games over 20% of the time.
So Gonzaga may well fall short of a title again. And until they win one, this era won't necessarily be recognized as the Gonzaga Era the way the early nineties are recognized as the Duke Era. But don't let the conference affiliation fool you. Regardless of what happens in March, Gonzaga has dominated the WCC — and every other league — like no other team in the country the past six seasons.
Ken Pomeroy is the creator of college basketball's advanced statistics site kenpom.com, which has archives dating back to the 2002 season. After a career in meteorology and as an instructor at the University of Utah, Pomeroy's focus is on basketball. He has previously contributed to The Athletic, ESPN, Slate and Deadspin.