A primer on the strengths, weaknesses, and key cogs for the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
The monkey is finally off Mark Few’s back. After rising through the ranks to the very top of the mid-major pool and suffering several tournament disappointments along the way, Gonzaga has finally reached the Final Four. This is the best team the Bulldogs have ever had and they are only two wins away from a national title, the first by a non-major conference team since UNLV won the 1990 championship as a member of the Big West. Now that the wait for a Final Four is over, will Gonzaga capitalize on this opportunity and claim a championship?
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
Coach: Mark Few
Record: 36-1 (17-1 WCC)
How They Got to the Final Four:
Gonzaga has been running over teams all season en route to Glendale, Arizona. Undefeated until the end of February, the Bulldogs took down eventual tournament teams Florida, Iowa State, and Arizona in non-conference play to prove their worth against major conference opponents. They then went on to go 17-1 in the West Coast Conference, routing teams left and right and taking down Saint Mary’s twice, before dropping their first and only game of the year against BYU in the regular season finale.
After that loss, many began to question the legitimacy of Gonzaga’s championship aspirations. That seems foolish now. Gonzaga ranks first in the country in adjusted efficiency margin, first in adjusted defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions), and 14th in adjusted offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) according to KenPom.com. The Bulldogs have won 23 games by 20 points or more so far this season, by far the most of any team in the country. Yes, the West Coast is not as strong of a conference as the ACC, the Big 12, or any other major conference. But Gonzaga is wiping the floor with its competition, not pulling off wins by a point or two. What more could you want them to do?
The Bulldogs have not dropped a game since that loss to BYU. They secured the conference tournament championship title in easy fashion, beating Saint Mary’s for a third time in the final. In the opening round of the NCAA tournament, they smothered South Dakota State, holding the Jackrabbits to just 46 points and Mike Daum — the second-leading individual scorer in the country — to just 17 points on 7-of-16 shooting. They held off a well-rounded Northwestern team in the second round, controlling the game all the way through to squash that Cinderella story. They also won an intense, ugly, defensive battle in the Sweet Sixteen against Bob Huggins and West Virginia, one of the best teams in the country. But they saved their best work for the Elite Eight.
Gonzaga demolished Xavier last week, holding the Musketeers to just 35.5 percent shooting and a meager 12.5 percent from three in an 83-59 victory. The Bulldogs shot 47.5 and 50.0 percent from the field and from three respectively, finally combining both the offensive potency and the defensive tenacity it showcased all season. Xavier had no chance. And if Gonzaga has started to really heat up and find its stride heading into Glendale, the other remaining teams should be terrified.
Nigel Williams-Goss was a star for Washington from the moment he stepped on the court. He started every game for the Huskies during his freshman and sophomore campaigns and averaged double-digit points and at least 4.0 rebounds and assists per game both seasons. But unlike Williams-Goss, Washington was not very good at basketball, so the former McDonald’s All-American packed up his belongings and moved 279 miles east to Spokane, Washington – home of the Gonzaga Bulldogs – and he has thrived in his first season playing under Few.
Williams-Goss can do a little bit of everything. He is averaging 16.7 points, 4.6 assists, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game while shooting 49.0 percent from the floor, 36.7 percent from distance, and 88.2 percent from the stripe. He is terrific at penetrating and getting to the rim, can create on his own off the dribble, can distribute the ball in the half court, and can orchestrate the fast break. His three-point shot is streaky, but can be deadly at times. Most importantly, he is the Bulldogs’ leader on the court.
According to KenPom.com, Williams-Goss runs the point for Gonzaga 92 percent of the time. While the rest of Few’s eight-man rotation cycles through, Williams-Goss remains the constant general on the floor, setting his teammates up to make plays and asserting his dominance when the Bulldogs need him to. South Carolina’s defense is one of the best in the country – the Gamecocks rank second in defensive efficiency – and North Carolina and Oregon both rank inside the top 20 in defensive efficiency so there will be no easy baskets the rest of the way for Gonzaga. Williams-Goss was named a second team All American earlier this week. It will be up to him to continue his phenomenal play and lead the Zags to the promised land, something of which he is more than capable.
No one Gonzaga player can be considered its “X-factor” because that role rotates from game to game. While Williams-Goss and 7-foot-1, 300-pound behemoth center Przemek Karnowski dominate the most attention and lead the Bulldogs in scoring, several other players serve as essential cogs that play pivotal roles on the team, either outwardly or under the radar depending on the matchup.
Senior guard Jordan Mathews, a transfer from Cal, has repeatedly picked up the scoring slack when one of his teammates has an off day shooting. He led the Bulldogs in scoring during the opener against South Dakota State and he knocked down one of the biggest shots in Gonzaga history late in the Sweet Sixteen victory against West Virginia. Redshirt junior forward Johnathan Williams is a beast inside, averaging 10.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game.
True freshman Zach Collins, a possible lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft, is excellent at protecting the rim and forcing difficult shots in the paint for both guards and big men alike. He is also an efficiency scorer in the paint, knocking down 65.4 percent of his shots for 9.9 points per game in just 17.2 minutes per game. Although he doesn’t pull the trigger often, he has the ability to stretch the floor, knocking down 45.0 percent of his 20 three-point attempts this season.
There is no way of knowing which of these players will become Gonzaga’s ”X-factor” in a particular game. They have each played that role at different points during the season, and they have each done it effectively — it’s what makes Gonzaga so dangerous this season. Instead of relying solely on one or two players for production (Adam Morrison, Kyle Wiltjer, etc.), Few can go to any number of players to step up for offensive and defensive production.
Gonzaga’s biggest strength is its balance. You won’t find a more well-balanced team in the country. Gonzaga’s suffocating defense is impenetrable, as they are first in defensive efficiency, fourth in points allowed per game, and second in field goal percentage allowed. What’s most impressive is the fact that Gonzaga is fourth in points allowed per game while maintaining a top-75 tempo. The Bulldogs average 70.0 possessions per 40 minutes and still somehow allow only 4.5 more points per game than Virginia, who averaged just 59.0 possessions per 40 minutes (dead last in the country).
Offensively, Gonzaga is 14th in offensive efficiency, 14th in points per game, and second in field goal percentage. Few’s squad finds it success by spreading the love. The Bulldogs have four different players that average double-digit points and one more that averages 9.9, and of eight rotation players, four shoot better than 50.0 percent from the field and four shoot better than 40.0 percent from three. The ability of the big men to stretch the floor in the half court is essential to creating space on offense. Only Karnowski does not shoot from distance, but his ability to smash in the paint and finesse lefty jump hooks more than make up for that.
For good measure, the Bulldogs also rank eighth in rebounds per game, 25th in assist-to-turnover ratio, and fourth in three-point field goal percentage allowed. This balance not only comes from each player’s willingness and ability to commit on both sides of the ball, but also on Gonzaga’s great depth. Eight players average more than 10.0 minutes per games, allowing each player enough rest during the game so he can sell out on every defensive possession.
There is nothing that this team can’t do. They defend relentlessly. They score with both potency and efficiency. They hit the glass hard. It will be extremely difficult to keep this team from claiming its first-ever national title.
Gonzaga does not have a big flaw. As outlined before, the Bulldogs are one of, if not the best defensive team in the country, they rebound with the best of them, and they have no problems scoring the ball. They play well both ways in the half court and in transition. They have depth in the front court and the back court. They have both NBA-ready talent, strong veteran leadership, and key role players. So to find a flaw, we’re going to have to nitpick.
Occasionally, Gonzaga can run cold from three. The Bulldogs shoot 37.8 percent from deep as a unit, good for 57th in the nation. That’s not a top-15 mark like they are in pretty much every other statistical category, but it’s still pretty good. Gonzaga started the tournament cold from beyond the arc, shooting 12-for-46 (26.1 percent) from three in its first two games, but has since corrected course. In its last two games, Gonzaga is 16-for-34 (47.1 percent) from deep. So, yes, like every other team in college basketball history, sometimes the Zags get cold shooting from distance, but when they do, they overcome it with defense and efficiency inside arc.
The only other small flaw that could possibly impact the Bulldogs in Glendale is free throw shooting. Gonzaga is shooting 58.6 percent from the charity stripe during the tournament compared to its 71.8 percent mark on the season (117th in the country). Poor free throw shooting can sink even the best teams down the stretch during the NCAA tournament, so it will be crucial for Gonzaga to return to form from the line even with the pressure continuing to mount.
These are only small flaws on an otherwise flawless Gonzaga team. If the Bulldogs shoot just their season average from three and from the line, they should be just fine.
Gonzaga should be considered the favorite to win the national title. Forget about all the prestige surrounding North Carolina. Forget the fact that you could probably name more Tar Heels than Bulldogs. Gonzaga is the best team left in this tournament. They defend at an elite level at every position and can score with the best offenses in the country. On nights where everything is clicking (see: Elite Eight), Gonzaga is near impossible to beat. And on days where the Bulldogs are a little off or are harassed by a solid defense (see: Sweet Sixteen), they can grab an ugly win with its own defense and clutch shooting. Beware the Bulldogs. There’s a strong chance they’ll be cutting down the nets in Glendale Monday night.
Edited by Joe Sparacio.
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