20 Questions: Where Does Gonzaga Go After Last Season’s Highs and Lows?Posted by Chris Johnson on October 22nd, 2013
Throughout the preseason, RTC national columnists will answer the 20 most compelling questions heading into the 2013-14 season. Previous columns in this year’s series are located here.
At certain moments last season, Gonzaga looked like a team that could make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. It had all the necessary pieces: a great backcourt (Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell), a talented frontcourt (Elias Harris, Sam Dower, and Kelly Olynyk), a gritty defensive specialist (Mike Hart), and enough role players, it seemed, to bang with the sort of deep and athletic teams that had occasionally overwhelmed Mark Few’s teams of years past. The Bulldogs also had an impressive stack of non-conference wins to stick on their resume, victories over Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Davidson, Kansas State and Baylor (no, Baylor didn’t make the NCAAs, but that win sure looked good at the time!). It felt like this was the Gonzaga team that would, for the first time since Few replaced Dan Monson as head coach in 1999, roll on past the Sweet Sixteen. The 2012-13 Bulldogs, which had earned an NCAA #1 seed after obliterating the West Coast Conference competition – the Zags finished 16-0 in WCC play – seemed well-positioned to take the next step. Some believed Gonzaga had National Championship potential. Others were less optimistic. The consensus, though, was that this Gonzaga team was, for lack of a more descriptive word, good. Not just good like most of Few’s Gonzaga teams, but good enough to hang with the very best teams in the country.
The subset of college hoops fans that believed Gonzaga was undeserving of its No. 1 seed were validated just two games into the NCAA Tournament when the Bulldogs fell to No. 9 seed and eventual Final Four participant Wichita State. In fact, charges that Gonzaga was overrated surfaced even before it lost to Wichita State; the Bulldogs’ narrow six-point win over Southern in the round of 64 was proof enough, for some, that Few’s team wasn’t a real national championship contender. Whenever you happened to jump off the bandwagon – if you jumped off it in the first place – there’s no denying that part of the reason Gonzaga lost to Wichita State had less to do with its own capabilities than it did an insanely well-timed shooting hot streak from the Shockers, who scored 23 points in nine possessions during a ridiculous second-half run. Maybe Gonzaga could have played better defense, and maybe a team like Louisville, whose swarming traps last season (0.83 points per possession) was some of the finest work on that end of the floor that any team has produced in the past decade, would have short-circuited the Shockers’ run. But when a team gets as hot as Wichita State did in that pivotal stretch, and three-point shots start dropping like free throws, you basically have no choice but to tip your cap and go home. In the moment, of course, the same old Gonzagian critiques flooded the national conversation: Just like I predicted! Gonzaga can’t play with the big boys! I knew it! Which, OK. Gonzaga was knocked out earlier than it should have been, but if we’re going to label last year’s Gonzaga team like the others that came before it – like the ones that stacked up easy regular season wins but weren’t prepared to handle the heat of the NCAA Tournament – can we at least acknowledge the circumstances surrounding the Bulldogs’ early NCAA Tournament exit? Is it really fair to paint Gonzaga with such broad strokes, if the team that bounced it from the NCAAs was, 1) a couple possessions away from beating eventual National Champion Louisville in the Final Four; and, 2) the beneficiary of a crazy run of long-range shooting? Introducing some nuance would be nice.
How you view last season’s NCAA Tournament disappointment will no doubt color your perception of the Zags headed into this season, as will the departures of Olynyk and Harris, the former a first-round pick for the Boston Celtics, the latter an undrafted free agent who signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. Gonzaga does return what most people believe to be one of the best backcourts in the country: Pangos, Stockton and Bell, plus Providence transfer Gerard Coleman, who averaged 10.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 0.9 steals per game as a freshman with the Friars. The frontcourt is likely to take a step back, but with Dower and Przemek Karnowski – who, if you buy into Luke Winn’s sophomore breakout formula (and I do), could be primed for a massive season – returning, Gonzaga should still have the best forward tandem in the WCC. The difference from last year is depth – after Dower and Karnowski, the Zags have few forward options they can reasonably rely upon. Former Louisville commitment Angel Nunez, a 6’8″ sophomore who will be eligible in December, will enter the mix just in time for conference play, but he is hardly a substitute for the batch of big men Gonzaga could throw at opponents last season. And knowing fully well about Karnowski’s conditioning issues – let alone his putrid free-throw shooting (combining his freshman season and his time playing with Poland’s national team at the Under-20 European championships this summer, Karnowski shot 45.2 percent, according to Winn), which could result in him getting yanked late in games – it’s easy to see how Gonzaga could feel ill-equipped to handle teams with deep and talented frontcourts. Not that it should have to worry about facing too many teams with great big men; Gonzaga’s non-conference schedule features very few contests anyone would describe as “difficult.” A road trip to West Virginia, which should be much improved over last season, might be the toughest game before WCC play begins. A visit to Memphis in February won’t be easy, either, but the Tigers – heavily reliant on a group of versatile guards – don’t have the type of frontcourt depth to exploit Gonzaga’s main weakness.
It’s possible this Gonzaga team could end up looking a lot like last year’s heading into March, if only slightly less acclaimed. It should have little trouble winning the WCC again, with only minor resistance from a resurgent BYU team (and possibly St. Mary’s), and given its relatively weak non-conference slate, another 25-plus win season feels well within reach. Where Gonzaga goes once it reaches the NCAA Tournament – whether this is the year it can bust through the program’s Few-era Sweet Sixteen glass ceiling – is anyone’s best guess. I’m less optimistic about this Gonzaga team than I was last year’s. That doesn’t mean it can’t draw better match-ups and advance further than the round of 32. Avoiding something similar to the 23-point-in-nine-possession bedlam that befell the Zags last season would help.