The big question in the upcoming NCAA Final Four is if anybody will be able to stop Gonzaga? From a statistical point of view, it is not impossible.
A top-ranked team hasn’t taken home the men’s tournament trophy since 2007 when Billy Donovan’s Florida team beat number one-seed Ohio State 84-75 in the national championship.
More importantly, a men’s team hasn’t finished the season undefeated since Indiana in 1976.
If coach Mark Few’s Gonzaga team does it this year, it will go down as the best team in program history — and one of the best in the history of the tournament.
More March Madness Final Four trends than the above could be indicative of an upcoming stunt-result.
Now, let’s take a look at some numbers.
Gonzaga is the first team in Division I history with five consecutive 30-win seasons. Now 30-0, the Bulldogs are attempting to remove forever the Cinderella label that has followed them for more than two decades.
Gonzaga has the best offense in the country. We already knew that. The average of 92 ppg is superior to any other team this season. Moreover, it is the highest average ever in NCAA Division I basketball!
The high scoring average has nothing to do with a run-and-gun style of play because Gonzaga plays at a fairly modest pace (only 10th in the nation). It is the offensive rating that is so exceptional, as Gonzaga scores 123 points per 100 possessions. That is the 3rd best in history. The 2nd best was Gonzaga from the 2018/2019 season. Only Villanova was better during the 2017/2018 season.
Aside from talented players, the key to Gonzaga’s offense is excellent execution. Their Effective Field Goal Percentage (61%) is the best in history, and so is their True Shooting Percentage (64%).
Does Gonzaga have any weak spots? No, sorry to disappoint you. However, they have not been challenged this season, and the West Coast Conference does not rank among the top four in college basketball. How will Gonzaga react in a close game when the going gets tough, and the pressure is on them? Also, Gonzaga’s average points per game and two-point Field Goals have been dropping for four consecutive months in a row.
Contrary to the other three NCAA final four participants, UCLA doesn’t excel in any statistical category. The stats are against them. But there is some hope.
The Bruins seem to be at their best in an underdog role and under pressure. Six of their games went into overtime this season, and UCLA won four of them. They also won six of the nine games where the difference was five points or less.
UCLA has to play their best defense of the season, crash the boards and keep the tempo of the game low while hoping that Gonzaga can’t handle the pressure. There is only one problem with that tactic; seven of the nine losses that UCLA suffered this season came when the pace was too slow for their liking.
Every statistic says that Gonzaga will have no problem with the Bruins, but the team from L.A. has nothing to lose. The pressure is on Gonzaga, and we don’t know if they can stand the heat.
Until late February, Baylor seemed invincible but then lost to Kansas and then again in March to Oklahoma State. That’s no shame. It just proves that the Big 12 is the top conference in college basketball, so Baylor has faced plenty of tough opponents.
Baylor is the second-best offensive team this season after Gonzaga. They have the second-best offensive rating but rely heavily on their three-point shooting. Baylor pops ten treys per game at a jaw-dropping 41%! But that also makes them vulnerable.
The Bears are not a great rebounding team, and their outside game doesn’t produce many charity stripe attempts. Those are crucial things in title games.
In the two losses this season, Baylor averaged only 22% from the three-point line and allowed the opponent to grab 11 more rebounds than average.
The Bears hold the advantage over Houston in shooting, but that is because of their three-pointers. The three-point shooting is Baylor’s strength but also Achilles tendon. Houston knows that Baylor’s no-middle defense and mediocre free throw shooting are also significant concerns.
Houston is the best rebounding team in college basketball. Both offensively and overall. No, we are not talking about average rebounds per game here because that doesn’t really mean much. What does matter is the game’s pace in combination with how many rebounds are actually available. That’s why we look at advanced stats like offensive rebound rate (percentage of available offensive rebounds grabbed) and overall rebound rate. That’s where the Cougars dominate with 40% and 58%, respectively.
What else is a crucial element of winning basketball? Defense! Guess what? Houston is the third-best defensive team this season and only allows the opponents 88 points per 100 possessions. But there is more. The Cougars have the 5th best offensive rating and takes good care of the ball (5th lowest turnover rating at D1 level).
However, keep in mind that Houston played in the weakest conference (American Athletic Conference) of all the NCAA final four participants.
Advanced stats guru Dean Oliver once said that shooting, turnovers, rebounds, and free throws are the four factors of basketball success. The Cougars rarely turn the ball over and are an excellent rebounding team. They also get to the charity stripe more often and execute at a better percentage than Baylor. So, that’s already 3-0 for Houston.
Can anybody beat Gonzaga?
It is not second-ranked Baylor that has the best chances in a final vs. Gonzaga, but Houston. Looking at the four factors, it is a 2-2 draw between Houston and Gonzaga.
The first step toward defeating Gonzaga? Disrupt its offensive rhythm. Because much depends on who sets the pace of the game and dictates the style of play.
How do you stop Gonzaga’s three star-players? Hmm. Maybe you don’t? You can focus on slowing down freshman phenom Jalen Suggs, the likely No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft, but that opens up room for sophomore forward Drew Timme. If Suggs or Timme are off the mark, the Bulldogs can turn to the team’s other All-America pick, senior forward Corey Kispert. Most likely, your best defensive effort fails to slow one of Gonzaga’s three stars, let alone the entire trip.
Teams have struggled to defend Gonzaga in transition, and the Bulldogs’ scoring distribution makes them hard to defend. Gonzaga has only scored fewer than 80 points on two occasions and has broken 100 on five. Beating them almost certainly requires an opponent to build a quick lead, then maintain it by shooting better than the Zags and breaking 80 points.
In the past, teams have been able to attack Gonzaga off the dribble and take advantage of a historically less-athletic Bulldogs perimeter defense. But with players such as Suggs, Andrew Nembhard, and Joel Ayayi, it is clear that coach Few has tried to address this issue.