When you think of Gonzaga’s basketball teams, what do you think?
A solid, typically older team that has good guards who can shoot but aren’t overly athletic, right? On the interior, they’ll usually have one player good enough to play professionally somewhere in the world, but nobody extraordinarily talented.
Last year’s Gonzaga team had Domantas Sabonis who ended up being the No. 11 pick in the NBA Draft. Sabonis is an outlier for the Bulldogs. Typically, there isn’t a standout player who gets selected in the NBA Lottery.
This year’s Zags not only have an NBA big as well, but they have a dominant leader at point guard, shooters on the outside and probably most importantly, possess a team that can defend other elite teams. But, let’s go back to previous Gonzaga teams.
As mentioned above, Gonzaga usually has a veteran, 3-point shooting guards who are disciplined and don’t lose games.
That’s all fine and dandy in the West Coast Conference. But, once Gonzaga faces a Kentucky, Kansas, Duke or typical Michigan State team, that’s where Mark Few’s Bulldogs get exposed. It’s not as though Few’s a bad coach. He’s great.
But when you don’t have the athletes to compete on a game-to-game basis in March, it’s tough to string four or more wins together. That’s all it takes once the NCAA Tournament begins, though. Four wins and you’re in the Final Four.
Gonzaga has never been there.
Since 1999, the Zags have made the NCAA Tournament every single season. And in fact, in 1999, the team made it to its first-ever Round of 32, Sweet 16 and Elite 8. That’s when the love and intrigue began for the small, hidden school up in Spokane, Wash.
But, since that 1999 Elite 8 appearance, Gonzaga has only made it to one other Elite 8 (2015). In 2004, the Zags received their first top-five seed when they were a 2-seed. That year, they lost in the second round.
Surprisingly, Gonzaga hasn’t been to Sweet 16 after Sweet 16. Since the year 2000, after the season in which the team made it to the Elite 8, Few’s teams have only made it to six Sweet 16s.
Granted, six Sweet 16 appearances in 17 years aren’t exactly shameful, but it seems as though every year a Gonzaga team gets bounced in that second weekend. In 2015, the Bulldogs lost to Duke in the Elite 8 and a year ago, they were upset by an incredibly hot No. 11-seeded Syracuse team in the Sweet 16.
Remember the story on Villanova a year ago? “Oh, Jay Wright’s teams? They always have a high seed and then lose to some meh team in the NCAA Tournament. Nothing will be different this year.”
Then what did they do in 2016? Win the title.
This year’s Zags
As mentioned earlier, Mark Few finally has a dynamic leader at point guard this season. He’s called him his best leader that he’s ever coached – Nigel Williams-Goss.
Williams-Goss is a 6-foot-3 Washington transfer who averages over 31 minutes per game, leads the team in points per game (15.7), is tied for the lead in rebounding (5.8) and, of course, leads in assists (4.6) and steals per game (1.7) as well.
What Gonzaga finally has this year is an undisputed leader in its point guard who can do it all, and again – most importantly – defend other elite guards. Especially considering how deep and talented this year’s class of point guards are, Williams-Goss’ defensive capabilities could prove to be extremely valuable once the NCAA Tournament rolls around.
As any person reading this already knows, Gonzaga is the only undefeated team in Division I men’s college basketball this year. A huge part of that has been and will continue to be Williams-Goss.
This Gonzaga team has already beaten Florida, Iowa State, Washington, Tennessee, and Arizona (who I will almost undoubtedly have in my Final Four) in its non-conference schedule. They also beat its only real competition in the West Coast Conference twice already this year (Saint Mary’s) by 23 and 10 points.
The Zags will be undefeated going into the NCAA Tournament. There’s no question about that.
So outside of Williams-Goss at point guard, the other guards and wings Gonzaga has at its disposal can not only score like they seemingly always can, but they can defend as well. This is Gonzaga’s best defensive team ever, which is the biggest reason why they can not only reach their first Final Four but win a national title.
In Jordan Mathews and Josh Perkins, the Zags have two defenders on the outside that can shoot from deep. Mathews shoots 39 percent from three, while Perkins shoots over 42 percent.
Outside of Williams-Goss, Matthews, and Perkins, Gonzaga also has a 6-foot-9 lengthy defender in Johnathan Williams. Williams also shoots over 45 percent from 3-point range and makes over 61 percent of his shots from the field.
Insert 6-foot-4 Silas Melson to its guard/wing unit, and Gonzaga has yet another shooter that makes over 40 percent of his threes. These five guys on the perimeter can not only shoot but again, defend.
That’s what makes Gonzaga different this year.
They. Can. Defend.
If you are to take one thing from this article, take that with you.
On the inside, the Zags don’t lack, either. Realistically, this may be the best one-two punch they’ve had on the inside in their program’s history.
First, there’s Przemek Karnowski. Karnowski is a 7-foot-1, 300-pound behemoth. No, he’s not athletically imposing. But, he is a lot more skilled than you think.
Either your team has a big body to throw on him and limit him, or he’ll eat you alive. Maybe not literally. Well, that’s to be determined.
My point with Karnowski is this: Gonzaga won’t be beaten by an average Power Five school or a mid-major lacking size. You have to have a legitimate frontcourt to contain Karnowski.
What’s especially problematic is that the 7-foot-1 man from Poland probably isn’t even the best post player the Zags have.
That’s Zach Collins. Collins is another 7-footer who weighs 230 pounds – apparently bringing the quickness to the post for Gonzaga. He’s not just easily more athletic than Karnowski; he’s more athletic than most 7-footers I’ve ever seen.
Collins is a freshman who is averaging just over 17 minutes per game this season. That may be why you’re not incredibly familiar with him. But, once you watch one Gonzaga game, you’ll more than just notice him.
His ceiling is higher than any other player on the roster, and he will likely be in the NBA this time next year. At just 17 minutes per game, Collins is third on the team in points per game at 10.6. He also averages 5.8 rebounds (tied with Williams-Goss) which slightly outpaces Karnowski’s 5.7 rebounds per game.
Collins leads the team in blocks by a wide margin, averaging 1.5 per game – again – in just 17 minutes of action. Once the NCAA Tournament rolls around, Collins will play more than 17 minutes each game. I can guarantee you that.
So, what does this Gonzaga team lack? Nothing is the short answer. Seriously, there are no holes.
The team has an elite leader at point guard, legitimate guards and wings who can shoot from the outside and two post players who are legitimate threats to every single team in the country. Just ask Arizona.
But, remember. What’s the biggest difference in this year’s Gonzaga team compared to the previous 18 straight who have made the NCAA Tournament?
They can defend.