The Gonzaga Bulldogs moved to 12-1 on Wednesday, taking down North Carolina for their fourth top-50 win in the past three weeks (Oregon, Washington and Arizona). A look at the schedule suggests relatively smooth sailing for the Zags the rest of the way. KenPom predicts them to win each of their remaining matchups, and BPI has them winning every contest except for a road game at Saint Mary’s on Feb. 8. Have we learned enough about Mark Few’s team to tout the Bulldogs as the team to beat nationally? ESPN.com’s experts weighed in on that notion, as well as the games to watch both this weekend and during the holiday week.
This is a highly questionable premise given all the movement near the top of college basketball, but we’ll say it: After beating North Carolina on Wednesday, Gonzaga has a chance to run the table and enter the NCAA tournament with a record of 32-1. How close will the Zags get? What are your biggest concerns for them?
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: It will be tough. Gonzaga has run the table in both WCC regular-season play and the conference tournament four times in 20 years under Few. That alone is incredible, of course, but the Bulldogs are currently 0-for-6 on that front since 2013, despite earning two NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds in the past three seasons. The bottom line is that running the table is really hard even for a top seed — plus, there’s more than Saint Mary’s to worry about if you’re a Zags fan. BYU looks much improved this season. Throw in my concern that no rotation player not named Corey Kispert shoots better than 70% at the line, and it says here that the Zags will arrive at Selection Sunday sporting a 30-3 record. Yes, I’d take that in a heartbeat for my team.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I think they’ll lose one more game, only because I don’t think they’ll escape West Coast Conference play without a loss. I’ll go back to the 2016-17 season, when a BYU team that lost to Pepperdine, Santa Clara and San Diego — all sub-100 teams on KenPom.com that season — got hot in the final WCC game of the season and beat a Gonzaga team that reached the national title game. I think the Bulldogs will lose a game to BYU or Saint Mary’s.
I think concerns are all relative. The Bulldogs are a great offensive team right now, with top-50 defense in what feels like one of the most wide-open fields since the Shabazz Napier run for UConn in 2013-14. If they can stay healthy and Killian Tillie continues to get more comfortable after knee surgery, Mark Few’s team could enter the NCAA tournament with one loss and a chance to win the school’s first national title.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I think Gonzaga will get close, but I think there will be one more slip before we get to Selection Sunday. The two best teams under Mark Few in the past two decades were the 2017 version and last season’s group — and neither team was able to go unscathed in the West Coast Conference. In 2017, the Bulldogs lost at home to BYU in the season finale, and last season they were bounced by Saint Mary’s in the conference tournament. I think one of the road trips to Saint Mary’s or BYU could be the one to circle.
What could hurt the Bulldogs at some point this season? Their free-throw shooting almost cost them against Arizona, but my bigger concern is health. Killian Tillie is the team’s best player, and he hasn’t played every game in a season in his Gonzaga career. Anton Watson has missed Gonzaga’s past four games, too.
Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: Gonzaga is really, really good. In a nation full of flawed teams, the Bulldogs have about as complete a roster as there is. Kispert does everything, as does Tillie, whose health will be a key factor in determining whether this team wins the first national championship in school history. Power forward Filip Petrusev has been a revelation in his sophomore season, showcasing terrific touch and feel around the paint. All three are pros — as is shooting guard Joel Ayayi — and all four should have their way in the WCC.
If you’re looking for a possible loss in conference play, St. Mary’s is very tough (again), BYU is solid, USF is decent, and Pacific is much improved. As much as I like the Zags on both sides of the ball, I’d be surprised if they ran the table entering the tournament. With that in mind, my biggest concern is the lack of a great lead guard. It’s really the only flaw on Mark Few’s roster: He doesn’t have a Josh Perkins, a Nigel Williams-Goss or a Kevin Pangos to lean on. At what point does the lack of a point catch up to you?
Seven teams ranked in this week’s Top 25 did not reach the NCAA tournament last season. Of Memphis (No. 11), Dayton (13), Arizona (16), Butler (17), San Diego State (20), Penn State (23) and West Virginia (25), which will have the most staying power, and which do you have the most questions about?
Borzello: I think Arizona is going to be a factor all season. The Wildcats have two losses — by five points at Baylor and by four at home against Gonzaga. They didn’t play well in either game. But Sean Miller is starting three freshmen, including a freshman point guard. There are going to be growing pains, but that player, Nico Mannion, is one of the best newcomers in the country, and I don’t expect him to go 6-for-34 from the field in his next two big games, as he did against the Bears and ‘Zags. Mannion will find his shot in big games, Zeke Nnaji will continue to produce, and the Wildcats will improve defensively.
I’m most concerned about West Virginia, mostly due to the Mountaineers’ guard play. They don’t shoot it well from the perimeter, and they’ve had some turnover issues. We’ll learn more about Bob Huggins’ group in a couple weeks, when they face Ohio State and Kansas in back-to-back weekends.
Schultz: I love Arizona, but I’ll go with the Flyers — not just because Obi Toppin is a player of the year candidate. Go back, and watch Dayton’s narrow defeat to Kansas in Maui, and you’ll see an excellent offensive team (seventh in offensive efficiency, per KenPom) with Final Four upside. Anthony Grant’s club consistently finds creative ways to score, even when Toppin (20.1 PPG) is being doubled. Additionally, junior guard Ibi Watson (44.7% on 3s) has been marvelous in a supporting role. Bottom line: Even though the A-10 will be its usual nasty self, I don’t foresee anyone knocking Dayton off its perch and out of the Top 25.
On the other side, I’d like to trust the Aztecs, but I’m not quite there yet. Did you see the San Jose State game? Granted, it’s one errant shooting night, but being held to 59 points doesn’t even tell the story of how bogged down things got against a pretty wretched Spartans team. The rugged half-court rock fight showed real vulnerability offensively for head coach Brian Dutcher & Co. Simply put, where does the offense come from if stellar junior guard Malachi Flynn (16.1 PPG, 42.1% on 3s) has a rough night?
Medcalf: I was impressed by the resilience from Memphis when the Tigers were down early (17-5 in the first half) and came back to win Saturday at Tennessee. No Lester Quinones. No James Wiseman (now permanently). I think Penny Hardaway has a young, athletic team with a chance to dominate the American Athletic Conference and enter the NCAA tournament as a true contender.
I have the most concerns about San Diego State, a team that needed a last-second 3-pointer to beat San Jose State last week and struggled in the first 10 minutes of a win against NAIA school San Diego Christian on Wednesday. The Aztecs are making 39% of their 3-pointers. We’ll see if they can sustain that.
Gasaway: I definitely like what I’m seeing from Butler. Kamar Baldwin‘s having his best season, and his teammates have been exceptionally accurate inside the arc, possibly because opponents are so fixated on guarding Baldwin. The Bulldogs also play D. This could be the season for BU’s first Big East title. On the flip side, I’ll join the list of those in wait-and-see mode on San Diego State. It’s a firm policy of mine to linger a while in wait-and-see mode regarding any team that beats San Jose State by two points at home, but I’m open to persuasion.
Give readers the one holiday week game (roughly defined as Dec. 23-Jan. 1) they have to watch and one less obvious game you’ll have interest in during that period.
Borzello: I hate to go the obvious route, but it has to be Louisville-Kentucky (3:45 p.m. ET Dec. 28, CBS), doesn’t it? One of the best rivalries in the sport, two of the best teams in the country and the final game for each team before conference play gets into full swing. Kentucky has to face Ohio State before it hosts the Cardinals, while Louisville gets 10 days to prepare for John Calipari’s ‘Cats. Will Louisville’s guards be able to deal with Kentucky’s explosive perimeter group? Can Kentucky handle Jordan Nwora?
For the under-the-radar game, let’s go with Wofford at East Tennessee State on New Year’s Day. Both teams picked up huge wins this week, with Wofford beating North Carolina in Chapel Hill and East Tennessee State dominating LSU in Baton Rouge. Wofford hasn’t lost a SoCon game since 2018 and rolled through the league unbeaten last season, but Steve Forbes’ Bucs are the favorites to win the conference this season.
Schultz: Louisville-Kentucky is always one of my favorite games of the season. This meeting at Rupp Arena should be especially fun because of the perimeter matchups, specifically Nwora against the Cats’ Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey (who has all the makings of a lottery pick). Expect a ton of offense and an onslaught of highlight-reel plays for the state’s annual bragging rights. Might this be a Final Four preview?
I also can’t wait for Stanford and Kansas on The Farm (3 p.m. Dec. 29, ABC). Rather surprisingly, given their youth and lack of size, the 9-1 Cardinal are off to their best start since 2011, including quality wins over Oklahoma and William & Mary, not to mention a one-point loss to red-hot Butler. Junior forward Oscar da Silva (17.5 PPG on 61.9% FGs) should prove a tough cover for the Jayhawks, as will freshman guard Tyrell Terry, a potential first-round pick who can really go. To be sure, KU remains the better, deeper team and has its own special lead guard in sophomore Devon Dotson, who will check Terry for much of the game. Then again, Stanford has pulled off some epic upsets at Maples over the years, and this is an opportunity for Jerod Haase and the Pac-12 to make a national statement.
Medcalf: I’ll also go with Louisville-Kentucky. You can’t pick against that matchup. You have two head coaches searching for answers and two mercurial fan bases that believe the sky is falling due to recent losses. John Calipari spent Thursday morning tweeting about his team’s loss to Utah the previous night. This should be an interesting matchup.
Under the radar, I’ll take Wisconsin at Tennessee on the same day. It already feels like a desperate situation for a 5-5 Wisconsin team, and Tennessee is trying to avoid the same fate. The winner, perhaps, will be injected with some new energy. The loser will continue its effort to stop a troubling slide.
Gasaway: You have to tune in for Liberty at LSU on holiday-week Sunday (1:30 p.m. Dec. 29, SEC Network). This is for all the run-the-table marbles. If the undefeated Flames win in Baton Rouge, we could be looking at a “Murray State in 2012” type of scenario. That was the season when the Racers started 23-0 before losing their first game in early February. Liberty could put together that kind of run if it gets by the Tigers.
As for less obvious fare, I’ll be firing up ESPN+ to watch Bucknell pay a visit to Philadelphia to play La Salle (2 p.m. ET Dec. 28). In his second season as head coach, Ashley Howard has the Explorers playing well in an under-the-radar way. Plus, the game is at The Palestra, which is reason enough to watch.
ESPN.com expert picks for this weekend’s top games
(Lines, when available, from Caesars Sportsbook. Predictors do not have access to lines when making score predictions.)