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Gonzaga’s upcoming schedule ranks among best, toughest in program’s 20-year NCAA Tournament run

In 2005, Gonzaga played three teams ranked in the top five at the time and Washington, which finished No. 8 in the AP final regular-season poll.

That didn’t make our top five.

There’s stiff competition when it comes to ranking the Zags’ toughest regular-season schedules during their 20-year residency in the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga’s 2019 schedule, which is one game from completion, already ranks in the top three with an opportunity to move up depending on Maui Invitational matchups.

From seeding to at-large berths to Selection Sunday disappointment, scheduling has a huge impact on postseason fortunes of college basketball teams. For the Zags, it’s a delicate balance of MTEs (multiteam events such as Maui), RPIs, Quadrant 1 to Quadrant 4, guarantee games, home-and-home series and neutral-site showdowns.

Gonzaga and other West Coast Conference schools bounce scheduling possibilities off ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi.

The end goal is compiling a challenging slate that holds up under the selection committee spotlight. Head coach Mark Few all but takes notes when the selection chair annually recounts the committee’s priorities.

“You do kind of want to project and forecast what you’re going to have and what fits with that type of roster,” Zags assistant coach Brian Michaelson said, “but in today’s basketball it’s so hard to know what you’re returning and even harder to know what opponents have returning and who is leaving.

“Some of these games are done so far in advance things can change really quickly. It’s one of the hardest and most thankless jobs in college basketball, but Stephen (Gentry, director of operations) and Coach Few do a great job with it.”

The top spot in our rankings went to Gonzaga’s 2007 schedule packed with poll regulars, including bluebloods North Carolina, Duke and Memphis. Washington, Nevada and Stanford were ranked when they faced GU.

North Carolina and Memphis finished in the AP top five (prior to the NCAA Tournament). Texas finished No. 11, Washington State No. 13, Nevada No. 15 and Butler No. 21. Virginia nearly cracked the top 25.

Try out this seven-game stretch: Texas, WSU, Washington, Georgia, Duke, Nevada, Virginia. Gonzaga did, and went 2-5.

Not far behind was 2009, led by UConn, which made the Final Four, and Memphis, No. 3 in the final poll. GU twice faced top 15 Tennessee, which finished out of the top 25.

Washington ended up No. 15, Utah No. 25 and Oklahoma State received votes. Arizona and Washington State garnered votes in the preseason poll.

“That was a really strong schedule, and I still think that was one of the most talented Gonzaga teams,” Michaelson said. “We had size, athleticism, really experienced. We had some great wins and a classic game with UConn in the Battle in Seattle.”

Gonzaga’s schedule next season includes North Carolina, Creighton, Washington, Texas A&M, Tennessee and a loaded field at the Maui Invitational.

Tennessee and North Carolina are in nearly every preseason top 10 poll. Washington is a Top 25 candidate. Creighton has reached five of the last seven NCAA tournaments. Texas A&M is coming off a Sweet 16 but lost several key players.

The WCC’s move from 18 to 16 conference games helped create space to add Tennessee. Few’s friendships with Vols coach Rick Barnes and UNC’s Roy Williams likely helped secure those contests.

The Maui bracket hasn’t been released, but it’s reasonable to believe preseason top five Duke and Gonzaga would be on opposite sides. Auburn, which has a shot at the top 10, could be considered the third-best team, which sets up a possible semifinal date with GU, provided both teams win their openers.

That’s potentially four top-10 matchups, which would elevate GU’s schedule in our rankings. Gonzaga considered scheduling another top-10 foe on a neutral court but ended up going in a different direction.

The upcoming schedule is balanced with marquee home, away and neutral-site dates, with ample prep time for the top games.

The 2008 and 2011 schedules fill out our top five. Of course, the list could require a revision in the near future. The 2020 schedule is off to a promising start with the Battle 4 Atlantis, Arizona, North Carolina, Washington and Texas A&M.

Gonzaga purposely began beefing up its schedule two decades ago, often with major challenges on the road. The 1999 squad that reached the Elite Eight opened the season on the home courts of Kansas, Memphis and Purdue.

The Zags went to UCLA in 2000, Arizona and Florida in 2001 and No. 3 Illinois in 2002, and there were no return games in Spokane. Those would come later when GU was firmly established on the national landscape.

Some of the weaker schedules of the past 20 seasons are from 2012-16, even with the presence of numerous power-conference opponents. No. 24 Memphis turned out to be GU’s only ranked foe in 2014. Dayton upset the Zags in the first round in Maui. Gonzaga faced Chaminade and Arkansas instead of meeting No. 18 Baylor and possibly No. 8 Syracuse.

None of Gonzaga’s 2013 opponents was ranked in the preseason, but Illinois, Oklahoma State and Butler were in the polls when they met the Zags. Kansas State finished No. 12 and OSU No. 17.

In 2012, Gonzaga’s only ranked encounter at the time of the game was No. 16 Saint Mary’s on a slate that included Arizona, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Illinois, Butler and Xavier. Saint Mary’s (24) and Michigan State (5) were in the final poll.