The Gonzaga Bulldogs, once again, have one of the toughest non-conference schedules in all of college basketball. They’ll play a gauntlet of opponents in Maui, starting with No. 1 ranked Purdue and followed by either Tennessee (9) or Syracuse and potentially ending with UCLA, Marquette, or Kansas.
They also play the defending champion UConn Huskies in Seattle, host San Diego State fresh off their national championship appearance, Kentucky at Rupp Arena, and No. 21 ranked USC in Las Vegas.
However, one common trend with Gonzaga’s schedule continued again this year: if the team they are playing isn’t a top 25 or top 25 adjacent opponent, they tend to be pretty bad. And using KenPom’s preseason rankings, the spread this year is a little jaw dropping.
The Zags are playing five teams in the top 30 of KenPom’s rankings, as well as five teams ranked 219 or below – six if you count non-D1 opponent Eastern Oregon.
This means the Zags are only playing two(!) teams ranked between 30 and 218 at KenPom: Yale (71) and Washington (78). So there are exactly zero opponents between 79 and 218 – which, perhaps intentionally, is the range where six of Gonzaga’s eight WCC opponents land.
So why does it feel like Gonzaga’s schedule is either national championship contenders or among the worst D1 teams in America? Well it’s simple: those teams in the middle don’t want to play the Zags, and the Zags don’t really want to play them either.
Most teams in the top portion of that range, say 50-130 or so, fancy themselves as NCAA Tournament teams. Programs like Arizona State (81) Fresno State (100) or Utah State (101) make sense regionally for Gonzaga, but those teams don’t want to travel to Spokane and lose as it hurts their chances of earning an at-large bid – and Gonzaga likely isn’t chomping at the bit to schedule home-and-homes with programs at this level right now.
Additionally, the Zags don’t want to risk losing to anyone in the non-conference that isn’t a legit top 20 caliber program, because they don’t have the luxury of boosting their resume in conference play. Mark Few and the staff have determined they are willing to risk losing to San Diego State and at Kentucky, as well as at neutral sites against UConn and USC and in the Maui Invitational, because those losses won’t hurt their overall resume all that much when seeding time rolls around.
However, losses to teams in the 100-200 range hurt the Zags in a more significant way than say a team like Kentucky, who is set to play Saint Joseph’s, UNC-Wilmington, Illinois State, and New Mexico State who all range between 104-178 at KenPom. Kentucky’s entire conference slate is teams currently in the top 80 at KenPom, which is, obviously, not the case for Gonzaga.
All this to say, Gonzaga’s strategy of scheduling top 30 teams or bottom 100 teams may not feel very fun, but it makes sense for a team who relies more on the strength of their non-conference schedule than any other program (outside of Saint Mary’s) in the country.
Until the conference situation changes, this will likely be the way the Zags put together their non-con for the foreseeable future.
Andy hosts the Locked on Zags and Locked on College Basketball podcasts, and serves Locked On in a marketing/digital content creator role as well. He lives just outside Portland with his wife Jenna and dog, Tillie.