The past may be prologue as Gonzaga Bulldogs basketball may be poised for a deep run in the NCAA Tourney. However, that is what I always think, so why this time?
Well, the answer is that this time isn’t any different, maybe. Except for a brand new one-two punch of quality transfers and the fact that this may be the biggest and deepest Gonzaga Bulldogs basketball team yet. But really, it doesn’t have to be any different. Climbing a mountain is tough and it takes time. If at first you don’t succeed, then try, try again.
Kyle Wiltjer and Byron Wesley have given the Zags a giant boost as quality transfers from Kentucky and USC, respectively. They both have experience and Wesley gives even more senior leadership to Gonzaga. The greatest thing is that they can score and score. One thing I have seen this year that has become painfully apparent for some really offensively challenged teams is that there are some really tough, stingy defensive teams out there, especially in the ranks of the top 15 or so teams. This has resulted in a number of games where the loser has managed less than 40 points in the whole game, a losing stat, for sure. The Zags are a premium scoring team (80.7 ppg/8th nationally) and this will bode well for them in the tournament. Wiltjer, a junior, can do damage inside and can step outside and hit the three (16.4 ppg, .541 fg%, .443 3pt%, 26.2 mpg). Wesley can also score (10.8 ppg) and is giving important, high-quality minutes (27.4 mpg).
The infusion of these two scorers has meant that Gonzaga Bulldogs basketball has become a very well balanced scoring machine. Without Wiltjer and Wesley, Kevin Pangos (12.1 ppg, .458 3pt%, .833 ft%) would be required to average around twenty, or more, a game and Gary Bell, Jr., (8.3 ppg, .398 3pt%) would have to score more, too. With the new dimension, Pangos and Bell are freed up to concentrate on doing everything and doing it well. Pangos is sporting a gold-plated 3.6 assist to turnover ratio so far this year. He and Bell are averaging 32 and 27 minutes per game, respectively.
The other important new addition is Domantas Sabonis (9.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg) inside. Watch him play and then say to yourself, this guy is a freshman? Yes, he is. But I was saying that to myself the first time I saw him play in the early part of the season. He is even better now. It is a true pleasure to watch him play. The reason for this, and why he is so good, is because he is fundamentally perfect. He reminds me of a longer Linas Kleiza when he was a freshman at Missouri. The other guy he reminds me of is Kevin Love as a freshman at UCLA. Both of these guys were fundamentals machines. It is almost as if they were constructed as machines with perfect fundamentals. You put that with a great basketball body, and tremendous desire and effort, and you really have something. Some credit should be given to Sabonis’ father, Arvydas, the great European and NBA big man who checked in at 7’3″. And like Love’s father, Stan, another NBA player, it appears he started his son off on the right path of perfect fundamentals. And like Kleiza, who is from Kaunas, Lithuania, as are both father and son Sabonis, the water in Kaunas should also be given credit. Okay, the coaches, then. They are developing their players right in Lithuania. So how good is Domantas Sabonis? He is averaging .704 percent from the field which is second in the nation. As a freshman. Most freshman are still learning what is a good shot. And many of them are struggling to get open enough to even get off a good shot. For the Zags it is contagious, because as a team they are averaging .532 percent from the field, good for first in the nation. I have always thought that a high team field goal percentage is a sign of very good coaching. And of coachable players who listen. That is a very good sign for Gonzaga.
Sabonis gives Gonzaga a quality chance to give 7’1″, Przemek Karnowski, (10.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg), a good breather. Karnowski averages 24.4 minutes per game while Sabonis logs 21.8. Karnowski, a junior, is a 288 pound mountain of a man. (That’s what they list him at. You tell me.) He is like a giant redwood in there. His sheer size is disruptive and intimidating. The little jump hook he has is unstoppable and he is pretty good at hitting it. He moves pretty well for a guy his size. He is somewhat earthbound, but, hey, its called gravity. Just ask Sir Isaac Newton. He’s playing in the D League. Anyway, any vertical space Karnowski can get between himself and the court just increases his effectiveness.
Kyle Dranginis (17.3 mpg) is a quality back-up in the backcourt and gets plenty of playing time. He would start on most any other team. And he is a junior. The ever-mysterious “they” always say that the NCAA Tournament puts a premium on guard play. Here, the Zags are in very fine hands with All-American candidate, and Canadian import, Pangos, and the super-solid and ultra-athletic Bell, who are both seniors. Then add Dranginis to the mix and the Zags have the all-important backcourt experience. No one and done here, baby. (By the way, I hear Pangos is from the Toronto area. Did you know they aren’t all just a bunch of hockey pucks up there in the Great White North? Somebody really ought to start recruiting that Toronto area…)
Anyway, that leaves us with Angel Nunez, a senior, and Eric McClellan, a junior. Again, these are quality reserves. A deep bench could be very helpful in the NCAA Tournament. Nunez needs to keep his head up and be ready. He could inject a major infusion of energy during a hard-fought game, deep in the NCAA Tourney. Against San Francisco, Saturday night, he looked plenty juicy. And McClellan, who became eligible at mid-year after his transfer from Vanderbilt, can also be a major depth charge. I’m no math major, but at my count that is nine quality players who could be starting for almost any team in the country. That nine is comprised of four seniors, four juniors, and the playing well beyond his years freshman, Sabonis. Mark Few? Let’s call him Mark Many. Mark the Bountiful. This is a deep and experienced Gonzaga Bulldogs basketball team with plenty of upperclassman leadership. That used to be important in the NCAA Tournament. Or is it now just one and done for the NBA? When push comes to shove, in crunch time, I’ll take that well-seasoned roster. It is still important.
So what about the competition level Gonzaga has faced. Two weeks ago this Saturday, they mopped the court with Memphis. That was pretty impressive. At Arizona, the Zags took the Wildcats to overtime and, ultimately, lost by three. That was a would of, could of, should of, with Gonzaga having the last possession in regulation and a chance to win that sort of just fizzled out in bad execution in the last few seconds. They have other big and pretty big non-conference wins, too. SMU, St. Joseph’s and Washington State, at home. Georgia and St. John’s, neutral. UCLA, away. At least, there are some name brands in there.
And how about the West Coast Conference. BYU gives the Zags a taste of a Power Five environment now in their big arena in Provo. And anyone who saw Gonzaga at Santa Clara and at San Francisco this last week knows that these WCC teams are giving the Zags all they have. Gonzaga comes into these WCC games with a giant target on their back. They are getting everyone’s best shot. Especially in the road games. This is the way it has been for many years in the WCC. The way things are, this is a given, always has been and always will be. The Zags sneak up on no one and no announcement is needed. In the WCC, when the Zags are in town the crazy comes out in droves. You want to see a technical. No problem. You want to see a pushin’ and a shovin’. Been there, done that. It is no holds barred. Chippy, trash talking, bad blood. You want to see some guy you have never heard of put up monster numbers. You will, the Zags bring out the best in the competition in the WCC. These are not easy places to play, St. Mary’s, Pepperdine, Portland, San Diego, Loyola Marymount, Pacific, and the rest. So you say, well there are only 5,000 people there. Yeah, 5,000 crazy people in a dinky, overflowing, gym that barely holds 5,000. These are gyms. Not arenas. They are new, or new enough, they are plenty nice, or nice enough. But these are gyms, not arenas. Oh, what the heck. Welcome to A. James Wratt Arena, Standing Room Only. When Gonzaga comes to town, left coast Fire Marshals cover their eyes and pray. Unless they hear a monster, high-flying, Tomahawk smash coming down from the sky. Students are geeked up, out of their minds. Hanging from the rafters and howling for blood. And that’s just the guys working on their theological dissertations. These are intense places to play. Ask Gonzaga, and guys like Robert Sacre, about playing St. Mary’s, and guys like Omar Samhan, in Moraga, or even in Spokane. I’ll never forget, newspaper headlines in Spokane read, “Omar Samhan, The Most Hated Man In Spokane.” Large, black, bold type, headlines. Samhan loved it. Bumping shoulders with Sacre in Spokane, it was ON! Throw it DOWN! You do that in the Kennel? You are either a very brave or a very stupid young man. Or you’re a master agitator. Samhan LOVED IT! You don’t see that kind of stuff anywhere else but the WCC. ROUTINELY! Something about those Jesuit, small, private schools, playing each other every year, home and away, in too small gyms. They are like cage fights to the death. I think this is the one time that the Fathers just look the other way.
This thing is coming down on us fast. Gonzaga Bulldogs basketball only has six more games before the WCC Tournament. So is this maybe the year for the long awaited Gonzaga deep run? Perhaps a Final Four appearance? Maybe even a National Championship? Who knows? I thought last year’s team was going to be the one. But they somehow under-delivered on that promise. And the year before, when Kelly Olynyk emerged from a redshirt as Tarzan of the Hardcourt. That team was very close to the dream. But they ran into the Wichita State dream and their bubble burst with some nightmare, panicked execution in the closing minutes. That team was number one in the nation and a number one seed. This team is oh, so close, to that lofty perch. This just may be the year. After all, I’ve been picking the Zags every year. I can’t stop now. Not with this team. As that great basketball bard, William Shakespeare, once said, the past is prologue. But I wonder, what would Omar Samhan say? SMACKDADDY!