Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend a Gonzaga practice. Prior to that, I watched three game tapes as I prepared to call the Bulldogs' game at San Diego. After watching almost every potential postseason team, I truly believe Gonzaga has a chance to advance deeper than it ever has in the NCAA tournament. Mark Few is an outstanding teacher and coach who knows his team and what it is capable of accomplishing. And he knows the group he has now is a special one.
Let’s break down why the Zags have a chance to advance far into March:
1. Experience and depth
When it comes to experience, the Zags have plenty of it. It starts in the frontcourt with senior Elias Harris and fourth-year juniors Kelly Olynyk and Sam Dower. By redshirting, the last two had extensive time to work on their bodies. For Olynyk, it was about getting in top physical condition and working on his post game. As a 7-footer, he was best at facing the basket. Now he doesn’t mind contact or being physical with his defender in the low post. Dower had a chance to bulk up and develop a face-up jumper. To deepen the pivot, 7-1 freshman Przemek Karnowski comes in off the bench.
In the backcourt, the prize tandem of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. are experienced sophomores, and David Stockton is the first guard off the bench, a fourth-year junior who is a clever guard that has tremendous instincts for his position. Add in a group of utility seniors off the bench and you have an extremely deep team. Gonzaga has 10 guys who average double-figure minutes.
You can’t fake cohesiveness and trust for one another, and it's clear the Bulldogs have both. It comes to light during games, especially on the offensive end, where a team’s harmony is driven by its shot selection and a high assist percentage (394 assists on 705 made FGs in this case). The telltale sign of being a unified group is not caring who gets the credit as long as they win. When you are looking to go on a run in the NCAA tournament, chemistry can get you a win when the talent is equal or greater. This team spends a lot time together off the court, hanging out, eating, going to movies and just enjoying being together. It shows in the Bulldogs' play. It may not be the most talented team Mark Few has had, but it may be the cohesive one in a while, which will bode well in tight games.
3. Explosive offense
The Zags are second in the nation in field goal percentage and drain it from behind the arc at a 38 percent rate. Gonzaga will make you pay for any mistakes, steals or bad misses, because it capitalizes quickly in conversion. When the game slows down, the Bulldogs predominately run a ball-screen offense and a high-low game using their size. Each of their starting five is capable of scoring in double figures at any time, which makes the Zags so hard to defend. What makes them special is that they can beat opponents playing an up-tempo style or grinding it out through half-court execution. They have a big, skilled and deep frontcourt, and Olynyk is one of the hottest and most efficient players in the country, averaging 17.7 points and 25.3 minutes per game while shooting 65.2 percent. Outside, Pangos is lighting it up from 3 at 45 percent. The Bulldogs are hard to devise game plans for because they have answers both inside and outside.
4. Defense and rebounding X factors
This team is playing good defense, which is vital in close games when it needs a stop. There is a commitment from this bunch to play the man and be there for each other with help-side defense. Bell is the best perimeter defender, and the Zags defend as a unit up front. Their field goal percentage defense is 39.4 percent, which is good for 44th best in the country. Rebounding margin is at plus-6.5, which is 22nd in the nation. The reason this number is so strong is the big men are doing their job and the guards are coming down to help on the defensive glass.
5. Few weaknesses
There are very few holes on this team. Some say they do not hold on to leads well enough, but I believe sometimes in league play the Bulldogs have such a big lead that they get caught playing the score instead of the game. But it doesn’t happen enough to worry about it if you're Mark Few. Sure, the Bulldogs are not the most athletic team in the land, and teams with great length, quickness and vertical athletes will give them trouble. Teams like Syracuse and Louisville come to mind. But those two teams are hard for anyone to beat. The bottom line is that this team has the tools to make a serious run to Atlanta. Will it? Who knows. The NCAA tournament is all about matchups. But I do know one thing: There are plenty of fellow Final Four contenders who don't match up well with Gonzaga either.