Blowout losses, inexplicable defeats: What's wrong with Gonzaga men's basketball?

For the last two decades, Gonzaga men’s basketball has smashed the notion of Cinderella.

The Zags, once a spunky, upstart mid-major program located in eastern Washington, have transformed into a college basketball powerhouse: They’ve been to two of the last five Final Fours, qualified for 24 consecutive NCAA tournaments and regularly put players in the NBA. Veteran coach Mark Few is widely considered one of the best in his profession.

But after a handful of dominant seasons — Gonzaga was the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament in 2021 and 2022 — the Bulldogs are sputtering a bit after starting the season second in the USA TODAY Sports preseason poll. They’re 18-4 overall, with double-digit non-conference losses to Texas and Purdue.

In mid-January, Gonzaga, currently ranked No. 14, barely escaped Brigham Young with a 75-74 win. Last week, their 75-game home win streak was snapped by Loyola Marymount (seriously) and they are second in the West Coast Conference standings.

It's not all gloom and doom. Gonzaga still has impressive victories Alabama and Xavier, and they lost to Baylor by just one point. They'll be a high seed in the tournament this March, but won't be the prohibitive favorite this time.

Ahead of Gonzaga’s Saturday matchup with WCC leader No. 18 Saint Mary’s (10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN), long the Bulldogs’ biggest conference rival, many are wondering — what’s wrong with Gonzaga?

No Jalen Suggs, Chet Holmgren or other NBA superstar in waiting

Senior forward Drew Timme is a terrific, accomplished player, a crafty scorer who uses his basketball IQ. He is third among Gonzaga players in career scoring in points, a tremendous example of how a player can develop at the collegiate level and someone who has benefitted from the inception of players being able to profit off their Name, Image and Likeness.

But without a consistent 3-point shot and with his somewhat undersized 6-foot-10 build, he’s not a surefire NBA pick — in fact, maybe no one on Gonzaga’s roster is.

Gonzaga forward Drew Timme (2) reacts with teammates guard Malachi Smith (13), left, and guard Rasir Bolton (45) during the second half against Portland at Chiles Center.
Gonzaga forward Drew Timme (2) reacts with teammates guard Malachi Smith (13), left, and guard Rasir Bolton (45) during the second half against Portland at Chiles Center.

Junior forward Julian Strawther (14.6 ppg) is the best pro prospect on the team with his athletic, 6-foot-7 frame, but he’s not a consistent go-to scorer (though he did explode for a career-high 40 points last Saturday at Portland) and needs to cut down on turnovers.

Bottom line: There’s no Chet Holmgren (No. 2 overall pick in 2022) or Jalen Suggs (No. 5 in 2021) on this team, a bonafide superstar and NBA lottery pick that elevates the team and was the leader of the last past two seasons. Those type of hard-to-guard All-Americans make the difference when you’re chasing a national title.

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Everyone knows Gonzaga's game plan

Lots of people read too much into conferences losses, especially when they’re to unranked teams. The reality is that no one knows your game plan better than your conference opponents, who have been prepping for it season after season.

Yes, Gonzaga’s 68-67 home loss to Loyola Marymount was shocking. But more than that, it was a matchup problem for Gonzaga, which got out rebounded 38-29. Few said afterward of LMU’s rebounding that it was “just big, strong physical dudes just shoving us out of the way and grabbing it.”

What will happen in the NCAA tournament?

After earning No. 1 seeds in four of the last five tournaments, Gonzaga is likely to be a No. 2 at best. But losing any more conference games, or being upset in the WCC tournament, could push them down the seed line.

In terms of how deep a run to expect from this year’s team, the postseason is always about matchups. Gonzaga can compete with almost anyone — but big, physical teams tend to give the Zags the most trouble (think Baylor in the 2021 title game, and earlier this season with Purdue and super center Zach Edey).

Gonzaga guard Rasir Bolton (45) and guard Julian Strawther (0) smile during practice Wednesday, March 23, 2022.
Gonzaga guard Rasir Bolton (45) and guard Julian Strawther (0) smile during practice Wednesday, March 23, 2022.

Has Gonzaga’s window to compete for a national title closed?

Hardly. If Gonzaga has proven anything in the last two decades, it’s that the Bulldogs have staying power. Though GU only signed one player during the fall signing period (Dusty Stromer, ranked No. 48 in the 2023 class by ESPN), the Zags will continue to be in the mix for top recruits. The development of sophomore forward Ben Gregg (10 or more points off the bench in four games) has been a bright spot this season, and he’ll step into more of a starring role next year.

And don’t forget that few programs work the transfer portal better than the Zags, who have benefited in recent years from players like current guard Rasir Bolton (from Iowa State) and former standouts like Andrew Nembhard (Florida), Brandon Clarke (San Jose State) and Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington).

Working the portal will be especially important this offseason, as Gonzaga is set to lose close to 70% of its scoring with Timme, Strawther and seniors Bolton (10.5 ppg) and Anton Watson (10.5 ppg) expected to depart.

It might be a “down” year for Gonzaga by recent standards — but rest assured, GU isn’t going anywhere.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gonzaga no longer college basketball top dog. What's going on?