By Andy Glockner
One of the odder scheduling quirks this season is Gonzaga's regular season-ending non-league matchup with transitional D-I program South Carolina-Upstate. The game is slated for March 3, in between the end of the WCC's regular season and the start of its conference tournament.
Having played a killer non-conference schedule and with a stiff WCC challenge on tap from Saint Mary's (and San Diego), why play this game?
According to Gonzaga SID Oliver Pierce, it's principally because coach Mark Few is trying to do something nice for his seniors. Just like in 2004-05, when Ronny Turiaf's class closed its regular season against then-transitional Northern Colorado, Gonzaga wanted to hold its Senior Night game against a non-league opponent so all of this team's seniors could start and have a meaningful moment without concern about impacting the league race.
That's commendable, but it raises another question: Is it smart?
Turiaf's team was 22-4 when it played "the other UNC" and finished the season with an RPI of 10. It turned out there was very little doubt that team would make the NCAAs. Halfway through this season, these Zags are pretty well positioned, but they're certainly not a lock. With the Gaels (17-1, 4-0 in the WCC) and Toreros (4-0 WCC) around and the WCC tourney moving to a neutral floor in Las Vegas, the conference's automatic bid is very much up for grabs. Looking at at-large consideration, Gonzaga (11-4, 3-0) currently has an RPI of 34, which as a baseline is pretty borderline for a non-power conference team.
Right now, South Carolina-Upstate is 3-14. If it wins three more conference games, the Spartans will come to Spokane at 6-23. Gonzaga does get St. Mary's twice but also still has two games each against 2-15 Pepperdine and 1-17 Loyola Marymount, which will drive its current opponents' winning percentage (OWP) way down. Assuming the Zags' schedule, excluding USC-U, comes in at the average of their last five years' OWPs (.5402), just playing the Spartans brings that down to .5290, a difference of .0112. As OWP is 50 percent of the RPI calculation, that translates into a decrease of .0056 points in the overall RPI.
Right now, that's the difference between 34th and 39th place in the RPI. Gonzaga would be considerably better off not playing this game than it would be by winning it. Imagine if they somehow lose?
It's nice that Gonzaga wants its seniors to go out with a legitimate role on Senior Night. With the NCAA tournament nowhere near a certainty if the Zags don't win the WCC's auto bid, though, this might not have been the best season for that plan.
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Weirdly, Gonzaga's cross-state rival Washington also has a non-league game scheduled for March 3. But that one is against Seattle U., which also is transitioning to Division I but doesn't count in the RPI this season. It's also not UW's last regular-season game. The Huskies face the RedHawks before their final Pac-10 game, at home against Wazzu.
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In other news, there are some important games tonight and this weekend that have bracket and bubble implications:
George Mason visits VCU on Saturday with sole possession of first place at stake after Mason was nipped at Northeastern Wednesday night.
Butler (7-0 in the conference) hosts the league's two one-loss teams, UW Green Bay (Thursday) and UW Milwaukee (Saturday)
Second-place Niagara visits top dogs Siena on Saturday, with the Saints looking to move three games up on the field with a win.
The league's two best teams square off in Baltimore when Hampton visits Morgan State.
The league's top six teams square off with Utah at UNLV, SDSU at BYU and New Mexico at surprising league leader TCU.
American, the league's sole remaining unbeaten, goes to Holy Cross, which suffered its first loss Wednesday to Navy.
A big game without the Zags? You betcha. The two 4-0 teams -- St. Mary's and San Diego -- square off at the Slim Jim.