I’ve had this post in my back pocket for a few weeks. Actually, I would have liked to have written it before Gonzaga’s first game with Saint Mary’s a little over two weeks ago. Back on the morning of January 14, it appeared that Saint Mary’s may well have been the best team in the West Coast Conference. However, national perception was just the opposite, and furthermore, that Gonzaga was significantly better than the Gaels. For example, Gary Parrish did a feature on the Zags that day and concluded it by stating that “barring an unexpected collapse” the Zags would win another WCC title.
To channel my inner Bilas here, reasonable minds can differ but the choice of the word “collapse” seemed kind of extreme in these circumstances. Heck, “unexpected” got to me a little, too. Because, on that day we could have reasonably anticipated that the Zags might not win the conference title outright for the first time since 2002. Then that night, Gonzaga went into Moraga and easily beat SMC, forcing me to question my own existence. Having already won at Portland and at Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga had a stranglehold on the conference race, regardless of what their entire body of work said about how good they were relative to Saint Mary’s.
Since then, not much had changed. Saint Mary’s had been winning conference games convincingly while the Zags had struggled. Elias Harris was getting lots of press while Omar Samhan was not. Then last night, disaster struck for Gonzaga – they fell to a bad San Francisco team and fell into a tie for first in the conference standings. This turn of events has now prompted me to use the remaining game-by-game win probabilities to assess both Gonzaga’s and Saint Mary’s chances of winning the conference title.
First, here are the chances of each team finishing with a particular WCC record…
GU SMC 13-1 23.9% 18.2% 12-2 42.3% 43.8% 11-3 25.8% 31.3% 10-4 8.0% 6.7%
(In the interest of full disclosure, I calculated the one, two, and three-loss scenarios and lumped all other options into the four-loss bin.)
From here, one can compute the chances of each team finishing above the other.
Chance of winning WCC
Gonzaga........42.2% Saint Mary's...36.1% Tie............21.7%
The problem for the Gaels is that the team with the best loss loses conference tourney tie-breakers. Most tie scenarios are going to involve SMC losing at Portland (and winning at Gonzaga), thus the Zags’ chances of earning the top seed in the WCC tourney are still a bit better than 60 percent. Keep in mind also that I’m ignoring Portland in this scenario. They actually have a non-zero chance to win a title outright, although that chance may be no more than one or two percent.
Saint Mary’s may be better, but Gonzaga has the easier road over the second half of the conference schedule and therefore is still in the driver’s seat. However, it wouldn’t be the biggest choke job in college hoops history if Gonzaga somehow finds themselves playing from the two-seed in the WCC tourney for the first time in years.