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January 31, 2013
Just Imagine
If Gonzaga Were in the Big Ten

by John Gasaway

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At 19-2 overall and 6-0 in West Coast Conference play, Gonzaga appears well on its way to a WCC regular-season title and a very high seed in the NCAA tournament. (My colleague Joe Lunardi currently projects the Bulldogs as a No. 2 seed.) Mark Few's team may not run the table in conference play -- there are road games yet to be played at Saint Mary's and Brigham Young -- but it's a safe bet that the Zags will finish the regular season with a gaudy record. Again. Gonzaga has posted an .875 winning percentage in conference games over the past five seasons.

Forgive me for saying so, but we've seen this movie before. We know Gonzaga is one of the best teams in the nation, we know they'll compete with Saint Mary's (and, the last two seasons, with BYU) at the very top of the WCC, and we know we'll see them in the NCAA tournament come March.

But what would happen if we gave the Zags a little more competition? How would Gonzaga do if we gave the program a one-season membership in Division I's toughest basketball conference, the Big Ten?

Not to be overly practical or anything, but the first problem will be geography. Gonzaga's nearest rival in their new conference will be Nebraska, and Lincoln is 1,425 miles away from Spokane. Sure, some portion of the league will also have to visit Spokane, but by the end of the season the Zags will have logged many more miles than any of their competitors. (A bit like West Virginia in real life.)

So to keep things fair, let's temporarily relocate Gonzaga to Chicago, the heart of Big Ten country. (Few will thank us later for the noticeable increase in the number of direct-flight options.) Now what? What would happen if the Bulldogs were put in the Big Ten for one season?

First off, the Zags will fit right in as far as tempo.
Sounds crazy, right? This is a high-octane offense from out West, and they're joining a league that has been the slowest-paced major conference for as long as I've been tracking these metrics. Seems like a round peg and a square hole, I know, but really it's not.

The problem here, perceptually speaking, is Wisconsin. At 57.5 possessions per 40 minutes in Big Ten play, the Badgers are indeed every bit as slow-paced as people like to imagine the entire league being. But the Big Ten's other 11 teams are averaging 64 possessions in-conference, right at Gonzaga's speed (64.6) in WCC action. I know when we drop the Bulldogs into their new league, the announcers will reflexively talk about "controlling the tempo," but just ignore them. Everyone involved will be on the same page as far as pace, at least until Few and his men visit Madison.

Kelly Olynyk will give Trey Burke and Cody Zeller serious competition for Big Ten POY.
Speaking of sounding crazy, how can I possibly compare Olynyk, a player that Few chose to redshirt just last season, with two guys who are in serious contention for national player of the year?

Here's how: Olynyk has been on what can only be termed a rampage in WCC play. Go ahead, doubt the level of competition that he's faced if you wish, but Olynyk's season totals compare quite favorably with those of more established national POY candidates, and the Zags have played, well, everybody (West Virginia, Clemson, Oklahoma, Washington State, Illinois, Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Butler, etc.).

Besides, when a player's making 65 percent of his twos while taking 37 percent of the offense's shots during his minutes (Olynyk's numbers in West Coast action), you can make a significant downward revision to those outlandish stats and still have a conference POY-level performer on your hands. You have to go back to Jimmer Fredette himself to find a player carrying the kind of load Olynyk's been hauling for the Zags in conference play.

People understand that Olynyk is good, of course, but word hasn't yet seeped out yet on just how amazing he's playing. So one of two things is about to happen. Either Olynyk's performance will come down to earth, or he'll play like this against some highly-seeded opponent in the NCAA tournament and everyone will finally get the memo.

Gonzaga would fit right in with Michigan and Indiana in terms of offense.
When it comes to praise for an offense, it doesn't get any better than being compared to the Wolverines and the Hoosiers. That's how good Few's team has been this season. In their first 388 possessions in West Coast play, the Zags have scored 462 points, good for 1.19 points per trip.

In the preseason I said Gonzaga's offense had a chance to be really good if it could just take better care of the ball than it did last season. That's exactly what this team has done, giving the ball away on just 17 percent of its WCC possessions.

So it's a little surprising to find that, despite Kevin Pangos' consistency and accuracy from beyond the arc, the Bulldogs as a team have been just average in terms of perimeter shooting during conference play. Then again when you're making 56 percent of your twos you can do without a few threes. Olynyk and Elias Harris both draw more than six fouls per 40 minutes, and the duo is shooting a combined 79 percent at the line. Perhaps most impressive of all, this offense has cleared the point-per-possession mark in 20 of its 21 games. (Next time you see Clemson head coach Brad Brownell, shake his hand for the defense his team played against the Zags. But the Tigers still lost, 57-49.) Gonzaga is consistently outstanding on offense.

The Bulldogs would finish a close third to IU and UM

With one of the nation's best offenses to go along with a very good defense, Gonzaga would win a lot of games in any conference. But I'll give the slightest edge to Indiana and Michigan in our hypothetical Big Ten race. The one area where the Bulldogs are strangely normal -- rebounding, on both the offensive and defensive ends -- would be more of an issue in the Big Ten than it is in the West Coast. I see Gonzaga finishing one game off the lead, at 13-5. A team good enough to post that record in the nation's toughest conference is most certainly a team that can reach New Orleans. I need to see the pairings first, of course, but I won't be the least bit surprised if that's where I have the Zags headed in my bracket.

Anyway, what an incredible Big Ten race that would be, thanks to the simple expedient of borrowing Mark Few's program for a while. And if commissioner Jim Delany wants to take me up on my suggestion, I'm fine with that. Yes, I realize Gonzaga doesn't have a football team. Let's keep the focus on hoops.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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