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Gonzaga Can (And Will) Return To The Title Game

Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review

This Gonzaga team isn’t as naturally dominant as last season’s, but Mark Few has a loaded team on his hands that’s ready to compete for a title.

The Bulldogs have been a mainstay in the NCAA Tournament ever since Mark Few took over in 1999. Prior to Few’s appointment, Gonzaga earned just two invitations to the Big Dance in the history of its program. With Few, though, the Bulldogs have gone dancing every single year. More impressively, not only have they reached the tournament every year, but they’ve also won at least one game in the tournament in all but three of their 19 appearances.

Still, somehow, prior to last season, many discounted Gonzaga as a team that couldn’t get it done on the big stage against major opponents. It wasn’t without reason. Before 2017, one of Gonzaga’s most famous (infamous?) moments in the tournament was Adam Morrison crying at mid-court after he and his Bulldogs blew a 17-point lead against UCLA in the 2006 Sweet Sixteen.

When people thought of Gonzaga basketball, they thought of a dominant regular season team, not a postseason powerhouse. Until last season.

2017-18 Gonzaga was terrifyingly good. The Bulldogs finished first in the nation in overall efficiency, first in defensive efficiency, and 16th in offensive efficiency. They had Nigel Williams-Goss, one of the best point guards in the country; Przemek Karnowski, a 7-foot-1, 300-pound behemoth center; and future-lottery-pick Zach Collins. They also had several other talented contributors to go to: Jordan Mathews, Johnathan Williams, and Josh Perkins among them. Gonzaga steamrolled basically everyone it played and finally broke the Final Four barrier.

This year’s version of Gonzaga isn’t as dominant, but it is severely underrated, and it will reach the NCAA championship game for the second year in a row.

The Bulldogs don’t feature a prolific scorer or a mountainous center this season, but they do feature the seventh best team in the country by overall efficiency and a balanced roster with talent at all five spots on the floor.

On offense, Gonzaga ranks 12th in offensive efficiency, 10th in scoring offense, sixth in field goal percentage, and 27th in assist-to-turnover ratio. Five different Bulldogs are averaging double-digit points per game, and a sixth — senior guard Silas Melson — averages 9.3 points per game.

Redshirt senior forward Johnathan Williams is the one of two major holdovers from last season’s squad, and he is now the go-to player for the Zags. Averaging 13.6 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, Williams is a machine in the low post and excellent on the pick and roll. Williams also handles the ball well for a big-man and can even knock down the occasional three.

Killian Tillie, Zach Norvell Jr., and Josh Perkins handle most of the rest of the offensive load. Tillie has struggled in the tournament — he’s only put up nine points total in two games == but he had one of the most impressive three-point shooting stretches during the final seven games before the tournament. Tillie went 22-for-26 from deep during that run. That’s 84.6% for those counting along at home. He is shooting 47.9% from beyond the arc on the season, so even though he’s run a bit cold of late, he’s due to resume his sharp-shooting soon.

In the meantime, Norvell has taken over for him. A 36.8% shooter from deep this season, Norvell shot 6-of-11 from deep against Ohio State and is 20 for his last 41 (48.8%). He has also averaged at least 14 points in each of his last six games. And while Norvell gets buckets, Perkins continues to serve as the facilitator. Perkins is averaging 5.3 assists per game and has notched eight assists in three of his last four games. These four serve as the core of the Gonzaga offense.

Gonzaga’s wild-card is sophomore forward Rui Hachimura. A Japanese native, Hachimura has the potential to go absolutely off against opponents in limited minutes. Against Ohio State in the Round of 32, he dropped 25 points on the Buckeyes in just 25 minutes. On the other hand, against UNC-Greensboro in the Round of 64, he got into foul trouble early and ended up with only four points in 19 minutes.

Hachimura is inconsistent, but when he is on, he is one of the most effective and dominant players in the country. Squeezing every bit of potential out of him will be essential for Few to lead his squad back to the title game.

Defensively, the Bulldogs rank 14th in defensive efficiency, 25th in field goal percentage against, and sixth in rebound margin. That defensive efficiency mark makes them one of three teams that is top-15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, which I should mention, as Joe Ilardi wrote last month, is a key indicator in predicting a future champion.

That defense kept them in the game while the offense disappeared during the opener against Greensboro, and it helped seal the deal down the stretch against Ohio State. Williams and Tillie hold down the paint, and Perkins, Norvell, and Melson lock the perimeter. Hachimura is not exactly a stud defensively, but he holds his own, and Williams and Tillie are more than capable of assisting him around the rim.

Their ability to defend will prove critical in the next round and beyond. All things considered, Gonzaga has a favorable path to the title game. The Bulldogs benefit from Florida State’s upset of Xavier, Texas A&M’s upset of North Carolina, and the utter insanity that has been the South Region of the bracket.

Gonzaga will take on the Seminoles, a 9-seed, in the Sweet 16, and if it wins, will play third-seeded Michigan (who has not been playing well) or the seventh-seeded Aggies (who are playing well, but have been spotty all year). Then, if the Zags reach the Final Four, they’ll take on either No. 5 Kentucky, No. 7 Nevada, No. 9 Kansas State, or No. 11 Loyola-Chicago.

Villanova, Duke, and Kansas are all on the other side of the bracket, and only one can emerge to play in the national championship. By the time one of these teams presumably reaches said title game, they’ll have had to fight through each other and, in Villanova’s case, the likes of West Virginia and Texas Tech or Purdue.

Gonzaga has a favorable draw, plays efficiently on both sides of the ball, and has talent all over the floor, some of which will be in the NBA soon enough (see: Hachimura, Rui). Don’t be surprised when you see the Bulldogs tipping off Monday in San Antonio, trying for a second time to claim college basketball’s ultimate prize.

Edited by Jazmyn Brown.

How far did Gonzaga go during the 2017 NCAA Tournament?
Created 3/20/18
  1. Elite Eight
  2. Final Four
  3. Sweet Sixteen
  4. National Title Game

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