Gonzaga: Why You Should Take The Zags Seriously This Year

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 17th, 2015

Maybe it is just that the naysayers are louder. Maybe it is the whole “once bitten, twice shy” nature of postseason college basketball. But despite a 32-2 record, a #6 overall KenPom ranking, a #2 seed in the South Region, and a veteran-heavy lineup, the once beloved Gonzaga Bulldogs seem to be going the way of Rodney Dangerfield. Not only are they getting no respect on the national scene from the average college basketball fan, they’re at a point in the program’s history where the combination of overwhelming regular season success (they’ve won 14 of the last 15 WCC titles, for example) and relative lack of postseason success (just three Sweet Sixteen appearances in that same span) has drawn a peculiar combination of jealousy and dismissal. Fans around the WCC are sick of their dominance the way New York-hating baseball fans love to hate the Yankees, while the rest of the country doesn’t take them all that seriously due to their handful of NCAA Tournament flameouts.

Despite a 32-2 Record, Many Dismiss Gonzaga's Chances

Despite a 32-2 Record, Many Dismiss Gonzaga’s Chances. (Getty)

Now, I wrote about Gonzaga a year ago following their blowout loss to Arizona in the Round of 32. I stand by everything I wrote there: Gonzaga’s postseason record is a result of a combination of bad luck in a small sample size and, frankly, a relative lack of talent. I wrote about them again back in December, wondering if this year was really any different than those in the past. I’ve now watched the Zags play maybe a dozen times this season. I’ve seen them up close and personal four of those times. I’ve seen them grow from a point in December when they easily handled UCLA at Pauley Pavilion to last Tuesday night in Las Vegas when they took home another WCC Tournament title. And let me tell you, from a guy who watches a lot of college basketball, there aren’t very many teams in this country that are better than Gonzaga.

How do I love the Zags? Let me count the ways. To steal (and slightly mangle) a line: I love their depth, their breadth and their height. Right out the gate: depth. Three senior backcourt players (Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, and Byron Wesley); three nearly interchangeable frontcourt players (Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski, and Domantas Sabonis, although each features different strengths); and a junior “Swiss Army knife” (as head coach Mark Few calls him) in Kyle Dranginis: all excellent players. That’s a strong seven-man rotation. Breadth, in this tortured analogy, I’m using to recall their wide range of experience, with 22 seasons of Division I college basketball experience among those seven players, including the experience of Wiltjer going along for a ride on an NCAA Championship team at Kentucky. And height? Come on, this is basketball. I don’t need to explain that when I’m talking about a team with three guys at 6’10” or larger getting major minutes.

Kyle Wiltjer's Size, Shooting And Championship Experience Make Him An Invaluable Piece (USA Today)

Kyle Wiltjer’s Size, Shooting And Championship Experience Make Him An Invaluable Piece. (USA Today)

Sure, there are some legitimate concerns here. The level of athleticism among this bunch is not overwhelming. Guys like Pangos and Wiltjer, despite their veteran wiles, still have trouble guarding the great athletes that they’re bound to see if and when they get into the Sweet Sixteen and beyond. Opponents can exploit mismatches with the Zags, but there are two differences. First, with all this veteran experience, this group has learned how to look after each other’s backs. If Pangos gets taken by some hyper-athletic point guard, those bigs are ready to step in and protect the rim behind him. If those problems continue, defensive specialists Bell and Wesley are ready to step in. And Sabonis? Though merely a freshman, the intelligence with which this young man plays on both ends of the court masks some of the rawness to his game.

The second difference is that, despite some matchup problems on the defensive end, Gonzaga causes its own brand of nightmare when the Zags have the ball. For instance, Karnowski, at 7’1” and nearing 300 pounds, is an absolute load for most collegiate big men to handle. If you double him, he’s proven adept at passing out of trouble to the Zags’ myriad shooters spotting up at the three-point line. Wiltjer, likewise, causes problems with his ability to score in the paint against smaller defenders or drag bigger guys out to the three-point line. And you’d better have a trio of high-quality perimeter defenders at the ready if you want to slow each of Gonzaga’s talented backcourt players. Now, I’m not here to anoint Mark Few’s Bulldogs as the 2015 national champions just yet. But discounting this team based solely on the unfortunate outcomes of previous Gonzaga teams completely misses the point.

AMurawa (999 Posts)

Andrew Murawa Likes Basketball.

Share this story

One response to “Gonzaga: Why You Should Take The Zags Seriously This Year”

  1. Erica says:

    My son, Taylor MacIntosh, goes to Gonzaga and is acquainted with Drew there. He sherad this site with me because I have had my group of prayer warrior friends praying for Drew since the accident. At least one of them asks me almost daily how he is doing and I haven’t been able to really tell them until now. I want you to know he has touched the lives of people he doesn’t even know and we will continue to pray for him and your family. I believe in the miraculous healing powers of our God!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *