Is This Finally The Year For Gonzaga Basketball?
Gonzaga basketball splashed onto the national scene in 1999 when they made a surprise run to a regional final before losing to ultimate NCAA champion UConn. Since that point, the Zags have been in the NCAA Tournament every year, sometimes with high expectations. But they’ve never even reached the regional finals again, much less the Final Four. Mark Few’s team has a chance this year, thanks to some good size on the frontcourt.
The Zags have three players on the frontline who go 6’10” or higher and it starts with forward Kyle Wiltjer. One of the best players in the country, Wiltjer is averaging 16 points/5 rebounds per game, and at “small” forward, he’s got a significant size advantage on pretty much anyone he matches up with.
Przemek Karnowski and Domanta Sabonis do the dirty work down low, combining for 13 rebounds a night, and they each score in double digits. They come from Poland and Lithuania respectively, two of the Catholic nations freed when the Iron Curtain came down.
It would be appropriate, though hardly the most important historical development, if this Jesuit school finally makes the Final Four thanks to the work of John Paul II in breaking the old Soviet Union and opening the door for players like Karnowski and Sabonis to come to the United States.
Kevin Pangos is a senior leader at guard, who seems to have been around forever. Pangos can hit from behind the arc and keep defenses loosened up. Byron Wesley is another double-digit scorer in the backcourt and also a senior. As if this weren’t enough experience, Few has senior Gary Bell as his third guard, and Bell can both shoot and distribute.
Thus, Gonzaga has all the elements. They have the size to match up with anybody. They have the shooters to keep defenses from sagging back. They have scoring balance where anyone can hurt you. Yet within that balance, they still have the clear go-to option you need in big NCAA Tournament games, with Wiltjer.
All of this looks good, but the days of 1999 innocence in the eyes of the national media are long gone. Gonzaga now invites skepticism, at least as a #1 seed, which is where their 24-1 record has them projected by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi.
The skepticism is understandable—there have only been four additional Sweet 16 appearances in the ensuing sixteen years. Any lingering benefit of the doubt the Zags were getting was lost in 2013 when Kelly Olynyk led them to a #1 seed and they lost in the second round.
Nor does the schedule offer a lot of opportunities for Gonzaga to prove themselves before people have to fill out their NCAA Tournament bracket sheets. It’s not for a lack of trying—Few’s kids have beaten solid NCAA contenders SMU, Georgia and St. John’s, all by at least twelve points. They went to overtime at Arizona before losing. And they scheduled UCLA and Memphis and won decisively, even if neither of those programs have been up to snuff this year.
The problem is that the most significant of those games—the SMU, Georgia and St. John wins, along with the Arizona loss—took place between November 17 and December 6. It’s not Gonzaga’s fault that the West Coast Conference only offers St. Mary’s and BYU as viable competition. But this isn’t about assessing blame—it’s about asking whether there’s a reason to believe.
I like Gonzaga, I think they’ve got good talent and as long as they aren’t in a regional with Wisconsin, my favorite team, I’ll pull for the Zags. I won’t be shocked if they make it. But would I pick Gonzaga to get past other projected 2-seeds like a Kansas or Arizona? Let’s just put it this way—I realize this is a good Catholic school, but when the apostle Paul wrote that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”, he wasn’t talking about one’s NCAA picks. And faith without evidence is what’s required to pick Gonzaga to reach the Final Four.