What To Make Of Gonzaga?Posted by AMurawa on January 16th, 2012
In the history of college basketball, Gonzaga’s string of 11 straight conference titles is second only to UCLA’s streak of 13 straight Pac-8 titles during the heyday and immediate aftermath of the Wooden era. Gonzaga, a small Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington, with an undergraduate enrollment of less than 5,000 students and no real history of basketball success prior to its first NCAA Tournament in 1995, has put itself into the same paragraph as one of the most dominant teams in sports history, even if the Bulldogs are playing on a different level than the Bruins were.
However, there is no doubt that recently Gonzaga’s dominance in the West Coast Conference has been challenged. Saint Mary’s has emerged as the conference’s most serious contender to the Zags’ throne, twice in three years finishing just a game back in the conference. And last year, with just three conference games remaining and SMC holding a two-game lead, the Zags saw the Gaels somehow lose to San Diego (a 6-24, last-place WCC team) and then knocked off Saint Mary’s in their head-to-head matchup to salvage a tie for the regular season title. It’s been creeping closer and closer, but could this finally be the year where Gonzaga fails to win the WCC? After losing by 21 points at Saint Mary’s on Thursday night, it is certainly a possibility.
Saturday, the Zags got back on track by heading to Los Angeles and squeaking out a road victory over Loyola Marymount, using a second-half opening 17-4 run predicated on eight forced turnovers to erase a two-point halftime deficit. But they had to hold on as the Lions fought back and turned it into a one-possession game for much of the final five minutes. Toughness has been a question mark for the Zags with junior forward Elias Harris even calling out his team for being outhustled and outcompeted by the Gaels, but on Saturday the Zags won down the stretch with toughness, hustling to loose balls and playing smart and hard-nosed defense. “In a game like this, it is about toughness,” said head coach Mark Few. “I thought we strung together some nice stops and got a little more confidence in our defense.”
But that’s against an LMU team that Gonzaga is significantly more physically talented than. At every position, the Zags had a size advantage over the Lions (save for when David Stockton was in the game for Gonzaga), but still they were fought to a draw on the boards. Senior center Robert Sacre, who has been mired in a slump for the better part of a month (over their last eight games he’s shooting 38.9% from the field and averaging just 6.3 points and 5.8 rebounds in 22 minutes per game) battled foul trouble and smaller, peskier LMU defenders to a mediocre eight-point, six-rebound performance than included a point-blank miss with his team up just one with just over a minute left. Harris was effective for spurts, but disappeared at times and went through the entire first half without grabbing a rebound. Really, the Zags’ most effective frontcourt player was reserve Sam Dower, who made three of his four field goal attempts and grabbed four boards in just 18 minutes.
Going forward, Few is going to need to get more confidence and more consistency from his frontcourt duo of Sacre and Harris. Surprisingly enough, his freshman backcourt combo of Gary Bell and Kevin Pangos – both of whom made numerous clutch plays in the second half – seems to be the steadier personalities on the team. But it is the frontcourt of Sacre, Harris and Dower that give this team the potential to be special. “They’re big and strong and they’re going to put bodies on you,” said Loyola Marymount head coach Max Good. “They’ve got a lot of arsenal there inside. It’s not like water dripping on your forehead, it’s like a waterfall pounding your face.” But for the Zags to be able to make a significant run against NCAA Tournament-caliber teams, they will need to know they can count on the best efforts from their big men with Sacre’s current struggles being the most concerning. “We just try to get him back engaging,” said Few of Sacre. “Just for whatever reason, he kind of lost his way here these last few weeks. We just need him to get down there and engage people in the post.” For Harris, it is a bit different, as he has almost always produced this season. Even against LMU, he wound up with 19 points and was a consistent defensive presence inside, but there is still the feeling that he hasn’t really taken the next big step with his game since his spectacular freshman season
There’s still plenty of time in the season for Sacre and Harris to find their ways, and Few definitely has some special freshman guards that he can lean on in the meantime. And we certainly learned last year that the standings can change quite a bit between January and March, but the failure of the two talented Gonzaga big men to establish themselves as consistent performers on a nightly basis could go a long way towards ending their streak in the WCC. However, count Few and the Zags out at your own peril.