What’s Wrong With Gonzaga?

Posted by rtmsf on February 7th, 2011

Michael Vernetti is an RTC contributor.

“What’s wrong with Gonzaga?” is a question heard more and more throughout college hoops. It is not surprising considering the Zags’ unusual 15-9 overall record and shocking 5-3 mark (4th place) in the West Coast Conference that it has dominated for the past decade.  When any powerhouse team goes into a slump there are myriad reasons, and the same could be said about Gonzaga. Focusing on two major ones, however, helps put the Zags’ current woes into perspective. Simply put, the Zags are suffering from the loss of two players and a vacuum created by those who failed to succeed them.

The Loss of Bouldin (and Pargo) Have Really Hurt the Zag Dynasty

The missing players are Jeremy Pargo and Matt Bouldin. Pargo was the rugged, 6’2, 219-pound point guard who starred in the Zags’ backcourt for four years before graduating in 2009. He was named Player of the Year in the WCC after his junior year, and gave the Bulldogs a solid counterpart to the canny Bouldin. He could take defenders off the dribble, hit jump shots off screens and go to the hoop to flush the ball with authority.  Gonzaga did not directly replace Pargo for the 2009-10 season, instead moving Bouldin into the point guard position and relaying on the mop-head’s court vision and outside shooting skills to maintain the Zags’ superiority in his senior year. The Bouldin-led Zags hit their first speed bump in the post-Pargo era in the 2010 West Coast Conference Tournament championship game against Saint Mary’s. The Gaels’ inside-out combination of Omar Samhan and Ben Allen in the frontcourt and Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova in the backcourt led the Gaels to an 81-62 upset.

Heading into the 2010-11 season, the Zags thought they had finally found a point guard to replace Pargo and Bouldin with JC transfer Marquise Carter, who was a star for Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. Carter had impressive stats in two years at Three Rivers – nearly 18 PPG and 5.5 APG in his sophomore year – and led the team to the national JC championship game where he scored 35 points in a loss to Howard of Texas.  Carter, however, who seems much slighter than his roster size of 6’4, 178 pounds (maybe the 178 is correct), has not caught on with the Zags. The Bulldogs started the season with journeyman backcourt player Meech Goodson at the point alongside all-around star Steven Gray, and based their hopes on their strong frontcourt duo of Robert Sacre in the post and Elias Harris at power forward. Redshirt sophomore guard David Stockton, son of the legendary Gonzaga and NBA star John Stockton, has steadily rung up more minutes at the point as this season goes on, and may end up as the Zags’ regular lead guard by season’s end. Or not, as coach Mark Few has tinkered with his lineup from day one and may not be finished trying to find a solution.

Emphasizing the experimental nature of replacing Pargo and Bouldin has been an exodus of guard recruits from Spokane: G.J. Vilarino, a Goodson clone out of McKinney, TX; Grant Gibbs, a beefy 6’4 guard from Iowa; and Keegan Hyland, a much-heralded shooting guard from Maine. All began this season on the Zags’ roster and entertained hopes of being the backcourt answer. All have left since the season began, joining Bol Kong, a 6’6 swingman originally from the Sudan, and 6’10 post man Andy Poling in a five-man drain on the Zags’ roster.

Few Usually Figures It Out, But This Year Has Taken Longer

So, at the end of the day, it is an absence of top talent that has caused Gonzaga to wilt as their murderous non-conference schedule and a more competitive WCC lineup has taken its toll. Without a distributor of the quality of Bouldin, that job has fallen to Gray and he is not particularly well suited for it. Gray and Bouldin were a devastating duo, with Bouldin able to spot Gray coming off screens and give him the ball where he was able to maximize his jump shooting and penetrating skills. Gary has often been left to freelance in the backcourt this season, forcing shots because no one else seemed open. With one less weapon to fear – Bouldin’s – opponents can more easily clamp down on Gray, making it hard to feed the ball inside to Sacre and Harris.

All is not lost for Gonzaga, despite the problem at point guard. With a hard-fought 67-64 road win over Portland on Thursday (Feb. 3) following a blowout 86-53 win over hapless San Diego at home, the Zags have won two in a row following their heartbreaking 73-71 home loss to Saint Mary’s on Jan 27. Gonzaga will get a rematch with the Gaels in Moraga on Feb. 24 and are pinning their hopes on winning out and rooting for the Gaels to stumble at least twice.

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