Final Four Fact Sheet: Gonzaga BulldogsPosted by Bennet Hayes on March 30th, 2017
Now that we’re down to the Final Four, let’s take a deep dive into each of the four remaining teams. Today: Gonzaga.
How Gonzaga Got Here
West Region Champions. Gonzaga’s road to the program’s first ever Final Four wasn’t especially treacherous, at least as Final Four roads tend to go. Both South Dakota State and Northwestern competed with the Zags for a half, but neither team was built for sustained postseason success. Gonzaga’s most impressive win was surely its Sweet Sixteen triumph over a fourth-seeded West Virginia team good enough to be a #2 seed, as the Bulldogs monopolized key plays down the stretch to escape the Mountaineers. Finally — and with no disrespect to Xavier’s inspired run to the Elite Eight — Gonzaga was handed as easy a regional final match-up as possible, taking care of the 11th-seeded Musketeers in short order. All this isn’t to say Gonzaga’s Final Four appearance is undeserved or not historic – when the best team in the country earns the program’s first appearance in the National Semifinals, it is surely both – but it is also worth noting the relative ease of the Zags’ arrival.
Mark Few. Monkey. Off. The. Back. Few can deny the importance of this Final Four appearance all he wants, but if nothing else, he will value it for its ability to remove Final Four drought-related questions from the media’s playbook. If Xavier had beaten the Bulldogs on Saturday, Gonzaga would still be one of the premier programs in America, and Few one of the sport’s greatest coaches. However, a dose of validation is good for anyone every once in a while, and Few now has an amazing opportunity to join an even more exclusive coaching fraternity: National Champions.
Balance between Gonzaga’s offensive and defensive efforts – the Bulldogs rank among the nation’s top 15 teams in efficiency on both ends – is this team’s calling card. And there’s plenty of balance among Few’s cast of contributors as well. Nigel Williams-Goss leads a parade of efficient guards while the timeless Przemek Karnowski serves as the de facto leader of an equally potent interior attack. The head of the Gonzaga snake is hard to isolate, as there’s no single player whose production is necessary for the Bulldogs to be successful. This is a mature group who has put together a consistent, patient season (see: 36 wins), and beating Gonzaga will demand that an opponent play well in multiple – if not all – facets of the game.
- Defense, defense, defense. Defense is a Gonzaga strength, period. The Bulldogs are the most efficient defensive team in the country, according to KenPom, but have proven in this year’s NCAA Tournament that they can also tweak their approach to each opponent. It was a late switch to zone against West Virginia that stymied the Mountaineers in the half-court, even though man-to-man has been the defensive style of choice for Mark Few most of this season. No opponent in the West Region was able to manage as much as 1.0 point per possession against Gonzaga.
- Interior scoring. Gonzaga averages 1.16 points per post-up opportunity (D-I average is 0.86 PPP), in humongous part (get it?) thanks to Karnowski. The hulking senior is the nation’s best decision-maker on post touches, equally willing and capable of kicking to a teammate for a score as he is overwhelming defenders on his back to finish a play himself. The senior big man isn’t the only reason why Gonzaga ranks fifth nationally in two-point percentage at 57.3 percent, but he’s certainly the hardest explanation to miss.
- Balance and unselfishness. The makeup of this team is an odd one. Karnowski and Silas Melson are the only contributors to have been in Spokane longer than two years, as transfers litter Few’s rotation. However, this looks and feels like a group that has played together for far longer. Eight players occupy between 14 and 26 percent of the team’s possessions, with seven of those scoring more than 7.3 points per game. These Zags have been defined by an unselfishness common on Gonzaga’s best teams, and it could prove to be a differentiator again this weekend.
- Free throw shooting. Not only does Gonzaga not shoot free throws exceptionally well (71.8 percent as a team), but it gets to the line relatively rarely, too. Fewer than 20 percent of the Bulldogs’ points this season came from the charity stripe, which is below the Division I average. We are nitpicking across the board here because this is a team with few true weaknesses, but a relative lack of athleticism has deprived Gonzaga of some of the free throw chances other elite teams often create.
- No easy buckets. Gonzaga doesn’t play slow, per se – it ranks 73rd nationally in possessions per game – but they also don’t race up and down the court for easy buckets either. Exasperating the problem is a general deficiency in forcing turnovers (222nd nationally in defensive turnover percentage), so the Bulldogs end up relying heavily on execution and shot-making in the halfcourt. This is all fine – the Zags have the talent to do it – but sometimes an easy bucket or two can be a pressure release on a big stage like the Final Four.
- Balance and unselfishness. Wait, wait, wait – this was supposed to be a strength, right? For much of this season, the Gonzaga balance has been just that: It has been a catalyst for the steady, night-in, night-out efforts that have led to a shimmering 36-1 record. However, in a close National Semifinal game, who takes over? Options are plentiful – Williams-Goss and Karnowski prime among them – but the unselfishness of this team has also stymied the development of any one alpha type of player. This isn’t to say someone can’t fill that role for the Bulldogs in a pinch, but there’s a less defined hierarchy here than on most Final Four teams.
Nigel Williams-Goss (16.7 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 4.6 APG). The second team AP All-American had a breakout year in his first season in Spokane, doing a little bit of everything in helping the Zags to a historic campaign. Williams-Goss should be lauded for his versatility, but it’s been his improvement as a scorer that has transformed him from a solid lead guard into a verified star. In his last season of college basketball at Washington, Williams-Goss shot 26 percent from three-point range and 76 percent from the line; this season, those percentages have increased to 37 and 88 percent, respectively. He has added value to the Gonzaga cause in so many ways this season, but don’t sleep on the evolution that has included “go-to scorer” in that arsenal.
Zach Collins (9.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.6 BPG). God bless Przemek Karnowski’s beautiful beard and never-ending career, but the Gonzaga big man we might still be watching play basketball in 2027 is Collins. The freshman has been hyper-productive backing up Karnowski, to the point where he is expected to become a top-20 pick in June’s NBA Draft and is stealing late-game minutes from his elder statesman. Collins has had a relatively quiet NCAA Tournament, but he’s capable of breaking out in Phoenix – keep an eye on the talented Bulldogs big man.
The Bulldogs’ charmed NCAA Tournament life (for once) continued when South Carolina upset Florida to create this weekend’s National Semifinal match-up. Betting lines have made Gonzaga a 6.5-point favorite, while KenPom predicts a nine-point Bulldog win. Sindarious Thornwell may be the best individual player on the floor Saturday, but Gonzaga’s breadth of talent will prove too much in this battle of the nation’s top two defenses. What happens from there is anyone’s guess – particularly if North Carolina awaits on Monday night – but as they have 36 times this season, expect Gonzaga to take care of business Saturday and then worry about the rest later.