Gonzaga Churns Out Another Victory; Could These Bulldogs Be Different Come March?Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 11th, 2013
First things first: Gonzaga’s 80-76 win over West Virginia on Tuesday night will not go down as any sort of victory for the ages. Heck, it may not even count as a “good win” come March. But before we strip away all its value, with say, a game of “name a Mountaineer”, let’s also give the Zags a little credit. Grabbing a road victory, in a hostile environment, over a competitive power conference team is never an easy task. Every Big 12 team – Oklahoma State and Kansas included – will be happy if they leave Morgantown with a win this season. Signature victory it is not for Mark Few’s team, but with another “taking-care-of-business” performance in the books, the Zags look poised to hang around the top of the polls for yet another season. Of course, that upward November to March trajectory has ended in a Tournament nose-dive too often for almost anyone to take the Zags seriously these days — no matter how good a regular season they may register. The familiar question begs: Is this Gonzaga team built to win in March?
Let’s hold off for a moment on evaluating Tournament potential, and first admit that the Zags are pretty good at picking up wins in the months leading up to March. Down eight with eight minutes left, and with Ken Pom’s win probability graph suggesting just a 15% chance of a Gonzaga win, this game long looked like one that might not support the above thesis. But in those final eight minutes the Zags did what they do best: score the basketball. The nation’s most efficient offense pumped in 24 points before the buzzer sounded, with a trio of Kevin Pangos threes serving as Coliseum-silencers along the way. Gonzaga has now scored at least 79 points in every game this season; this despite playing at a tempo that ranks below the national average. Just like last year’s 32-3 team, who finished second nationally in offensive efficiency, these Bulldogs can really score.
And also like last year’s team, concern lies on the other end of the floor. A year ago, Wichita State averaged 1.19 points/possession in dispatching the Zags from the Tournament. West Virginia averaged a slightly more manageable 1.07 points a trip last night, but it’s pretty apparent that Mark Few’s club will need to continue to win games with their offense. Przemek Karnowski is a space-eater inside who has also turned into a pretty competent shot-blocker, but the 4-5 combo of him and Sam Dower leaves something to be desired when it comes to mobility. Dower’s inability to guard on the perimeter becomes a bit more significant when you consider that the Zags’ three perimeter starters go 5’11”, 6’1”, and 6’2”. Gary Bell may well be an elite on-ball defender, but at just 6’1”, he isn’t exactly built to match up with bigger wings. Athletic swingmen who run in that 6’5”-6’8” range will find mismatches against Gonzaga all season – one of many reasons why the Zags adjusted defensive efficiency is just 91st in the country at this early juncture. To put things into perspective, the last decade has seen just one team with a defensive efficiency rating outside the top-50 (VCU) reach the Final Four. It’s a definite issue for the Zags.
As long as the defensive numbers remain pedestrian, Gonzaga skeptics will remain out in full force – and not unfairly. Really, even a Zag squad that scored and defended with equal proficiency would not be enough to wipe out the doubters at this point. It’s a peculiar bit of irony that a program who built its name upon unanticipated March success is now, once again, widely expected to do nothing in the sport’s most important month. It’s a “we’ll believe it when we see it” attitude that will be the prevailing narrative surrounding these Bulldogs all season long, but as Tuesday’s night’s gritty victory showed, it appears likely that another highly-seeded Gonzaga team will get the chance to reinstall the faith come March.