Is Anything Really Different With Gonzaga This Year?

Posted by Andrew Murawa on December 15th, 2014

At the end of last season — after Gonzaga was run out of the NCAA Tournament by Arizona, and amid all the hubbub and wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth that tends to accompany the Bulldogs’ exit from March Madness — I wrote a little bit about the Zags. Go back and read it. I’m biased, but I think it is a pretty good summation of the Bulldogs basketball program. Sixteen straight NCAA Tournament appearances! Fifteen in a row since Mark Few has taken over the program! Sure, there have been some disappointing exits, but you find some interesting things if you look back over the years. Namely, in all of those years, only six Gonzaga players have been taken in the NBA Draft. Or that 14 of the 16 teams that have knocked Gonzaga out of the Tournament have had future NBA players on their teams. Or that they’ve run into some extremely bad luck in some of their March exits.

Fifteen Straight NCAA Tournament Appearances For Mark Few Speaks For Itself (David Becker, Getty Images)

Fifteen Straight NCAA Tournament Appearances For Mark Few Speaks For Itself (David Becker, Getty Images)

So, with that history fresh in our minds, let’s turn to this year’s vintage of the Zags, a team that just finished a three-game mini-tour of Pac-12 basketball with a road win over UCLA, a home win against Washington State and a heart-breaking overtime loss at Arizona. If you read college basketball scribes from around the nation, you’ve already seen plenty of love for Gonzaga. ESPN‘s Jeff Goodman went out on a limb and picked Gonzaga to win the NCAA Championship, while John Gasaway, Seth Greenberg, Jeff Borzello and Joe Lunardi all punched Mark Few’s team into the Final Four. Several other national writers from around the country are on the bandwagon too. So, the obvious question is whether Gonzaga is again being set up to be called, erroneously, March failures.

Having seen them up close and personal this past weekend at UCLA (although given the location of UCLA’s press box, maybe “up close” is overstating it), there is an awful lot to like about Gonzaga. Let’s start with a three-man backcourt full of hyper-efficient and tough-nosed seniors in Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell and USC transfer Byron Wesley. Up front there is a three-man rotation of Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski and freshman Domantas Sabonis. Throw in quality depth with do-everything wing Kyle Dranginis, freshman point guard Josh Perkins (presently injured), versatile senior Angel Nunez and Vanderbilt-transfer Eric McClellan (eligible in January), and that’s a lot of excellent collegiate-level talent. But, you know what is missing from that list? Yeah, a lot of NBA-level talent. Don’t get me wrong, Sabonis will almost surely play in the NBA one day, and he’ll probably be pretty darn good when he gets there (at 6’10” he’s got some face-up game, great feel around the basket, good post moves and outstanding passing ability). Look, I’m not one of those guys that says you absolutely must have future pros to make it to the Final Four (although the list of teams that made it there without one is short), but it sure helps.

The Roster May Not Be Loaded With Pros, But Gonzaga Fans Are Still Plenty Excited About This Team

The Roster May Not Be Loaded With Pros, But Gonzaga Fans Are Still Plenty Excited About This Team

So, once again, that old bugaboo is still there. In order to get to the Final Four, odds are good that the Zags are going to have to beat a team (or multiple teams) with future pros on the roster. That certainly doesn’t disqualify them, of course. Heck, they just ran through a UCLA team that has two guys who will likely be first rounders in the 2015 NBA Draft. A week ago they played Arizona to basically a draw in the desert, and the Wildcats have two lottery picks on that team and another couple who are currently listed as second rounders by DraftExpress. Goodman and the others know these kinds of things, and yet they continue to have high expectations for the Zags for a reason. I’ve got Gonzaga sitting at #7 in my RTC25 and I feel bad that I have the team that low (and, for what it’s worth, I’ve got another couple of teams without any obvious future pros (Virginia and Villanova) right below the Zags, and I think both those teams are really good too). What is it about the makeup of this particular team that causes so many to think this could be a different movie, that the lovable and talented Bulldogs are going to be good enough to finally get over the top in March.

Well, that’s just it, nobody knows if they are going to have enough in March. The fact that they’ve had bad luck in the past doesn’t mean that they’re due good luck in the future. They’re not going to magically get more talented between now and the NCAA Tournament, although they do have the ability to continuously improve. And, there’s that one thing that Few has fallen back on a handful of times when talking about his team: exceptional balance. Aside from maybe that future pro category, this team checks just about every box you can list. Senior point guard: check. Talented bigs: check. Three-point shooting: checks all over the place. Athletic wings: check. Depth: check. Size: check. Great coaching: check. Basketball IQ and battle-tested veterans: check and check.

And here’s the little secret that could be the difference this year with Gonzaga: They’re tough. When you think of Gonzaga basketball, toughness and physicality are not the first things that come to mind. Now, don’t take that as a knock, but it is true. You hear the names Pittsburgh or Louisville or Villanova or Michigan State, and you think toughness. You hear Gonzaga? You probably think finesse. And don’t get me wrong, that aspect of the game is still in the Zags’ wheelhouse: skilled players, good ball movement, knocking in the three and offensively efficiency. But against a big and athletic UCLA team on Saturday night, the Bulldogs were downright bullies. They got into Bryce Alford repeatedly and knocked him off his game. Beefy frontcourt guys like Kevon Looney and Tony Parker? Nah, the Zags weren’t scared of them in any way, going toe-to-toe with them all night. Athletic wing Norman Powell? Sure, he’s good, but Gonzaga just buckled down and contained him. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise this year — the Zags are tough.

With all the other pieces in place, maybe that extra little bit of toughness is what finally gets this squad past the tipping point and ends up in Indianapolis.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

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