Gonzaga basketball has taken on an “America’s Team” sort of status since making their first national splash in the 1999 NCAA Tournament. The Zags have never quite fulfilled expectations though. No Final Four run has happened in the Pacific Northwest, and March disappointments have become the norm. That was never the case more than in 2013, when Gonzaga got the #1 seed in the West, but lost in the second round to Wichita State. It would be the Shockers, not the Zags that captured everyone’s attention with a run to the Final Four.
It was a tough ending to the career of center Kelly Olynyk, a subsequent first-round draft pick by the Boston Celtics and it was even more bitter given that we’ll never know if Gonzaga-Wichita was really a de facto regional final. The cold reality is that Gonzaga has had to live with the “disappointment” label that comes with being a 1-seed that fails to even make the Sweet 16. Let’s check in on how this year’s Zags are doing.
The loss of Olynyk has made Gonzaga more perimeter-oriented. Kevin Pangos leads the team in both scoring and assists, and is a deadly shooter from behind the arc. Gary Bell isn’t far behind on any of those counts himself. David Stockton, the son of former Gonzaga and Utah Jazz legend John Stockton plays a supporting role, as does 6’5” Kyle Dranginis, the one player not outsized by taller two-guards.
Senior forward Sam Dower continues to give the lineup an inside presence, with a 14 points/7 rebounds per game average. Another forward, Drew Barnham hits 48 percent of his three-point shots and can play a key role in pulling bigger players away from the basket. The intriguing player is 7’1” sophomore Przemek Karnowski. The Polish import is averaging 10 points/7 rebounds per game and if he can continue to grow into the role vacated by Olynyk, the Zags can be a different team by March.
Gonzaga will have to be at least a little bit different by March if they want to make a good NCAA Tournament run. While the record is 18-3, the losses to Dayton, Kansas State and Portland aren’t impressive, nor is the fact that Arkansas is the best win. The pollsters aren’t buying in this time around either, as the Zags are in the “others receiving votes” category.
Perhaps that’s for the best though. If Karnowski continues to develop, Gonzaga can peak later rather than earlier. Pangos is the kind of player whose vulnerabilities—too small, not a great defensive player—look bad on a highly seeded team, but whose ability to light it up from trey range make him a potent X-factor when his team is a dark horse.
Gonzaga’s got some improving to do, but if you were burned by them last year as a big favorite, don’t let that dissuade you this time around.