College Basketball Bubble Watch

Updated: February 26, 2016, 9:22 AM ET
By Eamonn Brennan |

Gonzaga's strange season, and a goodbye to LSU

For the first half, anyway, everything was going according to plan.

It was Dec. 5, in Spokane, Washington, where No. 13-ranked Gonzaga was hosting No. 19 Arizona. Preseason All-American Kyle Wiltjer, then a widespread co-favorite alongside LSU freshman Ben Simmons to win the 2015-16 Wooden Award, was back at it from the start: burying pick-and-pop 3s, putting defenders on his back in the post, scoring 15 of the Zags' first 26 points and finishing with 33 total.

The crowd at the McCarthey Athletic Center was deafening. Gonzaga led 38-28 at the half. It was a Saturday afternoon in December. The Zags were winning at home. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about it.

An hour and change later, Arizona would leave with a 68-63 win.

It seemed a bizarre aberration at the time. Only now, in retrospect, does that second-half twist feel like the first early hint at the disappointing Zags season to come -- which, nearly three months later, finds Mark Few's team at serious risk of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 18 seasons.

Gonzaga's young, untested guards shot 3-of-17 on the night and committed eight turnovers; they would remain the team's chief rotation weakness. Senior center Przemek Karnowski spent his second game in street clothes suffering from a back injury that would, eventually, cost him his season. The Zags' inability to close games at home would manifest itself again seven days later, when UCLA repeated Arizona's feat, and again throughout WCC play, in home losses to BYU and Saint Mary's. Even Wiltjer, so unstoppable early on, was swarmed by defenders eager to leave GU's guards to their own devices, and his efficiency dropped as a result.

That Saturday was the first real glimpse at the core reasons Gonzaga will arrive in Provo, Utah, on Saturday teetering precariously on the edge of the NCAA tournament bubble. After 28 games, Few's team is still looking for its third top-100 win, and just its seventh against a team in the top 150. A loss would complete season sweeps by both BYU and Saint Mary's, and probably would force Gonzaga to win the West Coast Conference tournament to keep its streak of tournament appearances alive.

Which is not to say Gonzaga is a bad team. Frankly, as a pure measure of skill, the Zags are likely better than most teams near the cut line at the moment. Wiltjer isn't the otherworldly force he was a season ago, but he remains an extremely potent all-purpose offensive weapon shooting 54 percent from 2, 41 percent from 3 and 87 percent from the free throw line. Domantas Sabonis has been even better overall -- and particularly as a rebounder -- despite a sizable uptick in minutes over last season. And while GU's guard play has been an ongoing weakness, it hasn't been terrible. It just hasn't been quite good enough.

The real problem of course, is the Zags' resume. Few's program has long since reached the point where it can schedule high-quality, high-major nonconference opponents. It's just that this season, the Zags didn't win any of those games. Their last chance came on Feb. 13, in a late, cross-conference matchup at SMU. Wiltjer shot 2-of-17 in a 69-60 loss.

Would a win at BYU ensure Gonzaga's bid? No. It would help, of course, but the combination of missed nonconference opportunities and atypical struggles in league play -- and, yes, for Gonzaga, 14-3 in the West Coast Conference qualifies as a struggle -- have made the Zags' actual resume look even worse than the disappointing product on the court.

Needless to say, this was not in the plan. It's never in Gonzaga's plan. The Bulldogs, whether as an elite national title contender or a merely solid mid-single-digit seed, never arrive to late February freaking out about their NCAA tournament possibilities. Gonzaga doesn't do the bubble often. It doesn't need last-ditch pushes to get itself in the tournament. Unfortunately for Few's team, very little about the 2015-16 season has gone according to plan.