In Zags We Trust?

Published: Jan 19, 2014 21:52pm EST
By mds2929, Sports Writer for Konsume Sports

Please Note: This article was updated Jan 19, 2014 @ 10:12pm EST

 

As is often the case when time passes, the origin story for a team's ascension can get lost among the more glorious details of sweet, sweet success. Such is the case with Gonzaga, the small Catholic school in Spokane, WA that first rose to national prominence with a wild run to the Elite Eight in the 1999 NCAA Tournament, although that was not completely where one should start.

Betweem the 1952-53 and 1990-91 campaigns, the Bulldogs accumulated a grand total of zero seasons with twenty or more wins despite playing in Big Sky and West Coast Conferences that were hardly national powers. Enter Dan Fitzgerald, who weathered several mediocre or worse campaigns before turning around the dormant program in the early 90's, including securing the school's first NCAA bid in 1995. While Fitzgerald's momentum seemed to have stalled, assistant Dan Monson took over in 1997 and set in motion the Gonzaga legend we've come to know.

After a stunning loss in the 1998 WCC tournament final, the Bulldogs entered 1998-99 with unbridled determination and delivered what still remains the best overall season in school history. Out-of-conference wins at Memphis and vs. Washington raised eyebrows early on, but few gave the Zags a shot despite the club rolling through the WCC and garnering a #10 seed in the big dance. Two weeks later, Gonzaga was a national name thanks to a spirited run led by a colorful cast of characters.

Helming the offense was pugnacious point guard Matt Santangelo, a Cyrano de Bergerac lookakile who, fittingly, played a European style of game and repeatedly found a way to get the upstarts a key hoop when they needed it most. Two seniors, the huge Jeremy Eaton (6'11") and the pint-sized Quentin Hall (5'8"), provided solid production in complimentary roles. And then there was Richie Frahm, the sharpshooter who would turn out to be the lone NBA player in the bunch and could go off for 20+ points in the blink of an eye.

A run that began with a twelve-point takedown of Minnesota (Frahm: 26 pts) really took off with a stunning second round defeat of #2 Stanford (Santangelo: 22 pts, 6 asts), a Final Four team one year earlier. After eking out a one-point win over #6 Florida thanks to Casey Calvary's tip-in with four seconds to play, Gonzaga was suddenly in the regional final and took eventual national champion UConn to the wire before falling 67-62.

While Monson left for supposedly greener pastures in Minnesota, Mark Few's clubs would prove that this run was not fluke, reaching the Sweet Sixteen in both 2000 (#10 seed, ousted Big East tourney champ St. John's) and 2001 (#12 seed, topped #5 Virginia). Then a funny thing happened - little Gonzaga hit the big time.

After only once being ranked in the history of the program, the Bulldogs soared to #6 in the nation during a 2001-02 campaign that saw the club enter the NCAA Tournament at 29-3 as a popular Final Four pick while securing a #6 seed. After getting shoved around by Josh Davis and Wyoming, those dreams were dashed just 40 minutes into the big dance, which has become a common occurrence in recent years. This is not to lay blame at the feet of Few, whose 390-96 record is good for the fifth-best winning percentage in college basketball history (as of 1/19/13).

After all, the former assistant took what Fitzgerald and Monson started, and has turned Gonzaga into a perennial presence on the national stage thanks to winning at least a share of the WCC crown ans making the NCAA Tournament in each of his fourteen seasons.

However, while the Zags have seen their level of talent increase - producing NBA players such as Austin Daye (son of a former pro who'd have never attended the school had he played a decade earlier), Dan Dickau, Ronny Turiaf, and Adam Morrison (Wooden Award co-winner and #2 overall draft pick) - the level of success just hasn't been there come March. Only twice since 2001 have the Zags won more than one game in the big dance despite garnering five top-four seeds along the way.

While some defeats are simply tough luck against elite opponents, such as 2003's double-overtime defeat vs. #1 Arizona or 2006's brutal loss to eventual national runner-up UCLA, others have been particularly brutal. While defeats against Kirk Snyder and 2004 Nevada or Stephen Curry and 2008 Davidson (both #10 seeds) stung, nothing hurt more than finally earning a #1 seed last year after rising to #1 in the nation, only to see the Kelly Olynyk-led team's then 32-2 season end with a stunning loss to Wichita State.

After falling 76-70 to the Shockers, the Zags have now allowed an average of 80.8 ppg in their past fourteen NCAA Tournament defeats, a far cry from the team's impressive averages from the regular season. However, the advanced metrics often tell a different tale from the raw stats, which have often agreed with the perpetual criticism that Gonzaga is now just like a school like Kentucky in which perception and reputation will give them a boost despite the strong likelihood that they might not truly be as tough as one might think (case in point: last year's team was one of the nation's defensive scoring leaders at 59.9 ppg, yet rated just 37th in adjusted defense per Ken Pomeroy).

All of this brings us to this year in which yet another of Few's clubs is excelling and posting gaudy numbers, yet it's exceptionally difficult to aver that the end result will be different from what we've seen over the last decade. That isn't to say that this Bulldogs' team doesn't have its strengths; quite the opposite, actually.

Junior guard Kevin Pangos leads the team in both ppg and apg, while teaming with Drew Barham and Gary Bell, Jr. to give the Zags a trio of long-range threats who each average at least 4.5 three-point attempts and have connected at a combined mark of 46.4%. Senior PF Sam Dower is a rare big man who hits everything from the field (61.5% FG) and at the line (83% FT), while center Przemek Karnowski, one of 2012's most-heralded recruits, is figuring things out in his sophomore season (59.1% FG, 7.5 rpg, 1.8 bpg).

All of this offensive prowess is legit, as following Saturday's 82-72 win at Loyola Marymount, the 16-3 Zags are averaging 81.6 ppg, good for 18th nationally in terms of adjusted efficiency. The problem, of course, lies in the "72" in that score. The Lions' production marked the ninth time in nineteen games that Gonzaga has permitted a foe to tally at least 72 points, including all three of the team's defeats (vs. Dayton in Maui, at Kansas State, and a perplexing loss at Portland). Even accounting for the fact that scoring is up nationally thanks largely to an increase in free throws as a result of an NCAA crackdown on several types of fouls, the Bulldogs' average of 67 ppg allowed is not strong for a true national contender, a notion with which Pomeroy's ratings agree (69th in adjusted defense).

As Luke Winn notes at SI.com, since adjusted ratings have been tracked, the average defensive rank of Elite Eight clubs is 19.4 - a mark that only improves as you get deeper into the tournament. Relying on offense alone to carry you is often a losing proposition once the competition becomes more stiff.

So, what can we expect from the Zags as tournament time approaches? Thanks to the mediocre nature of the WCC, Gonzaga should have no problem holding off BYU and St. Mary's (who fell to the Zags 73-51 less than three weeks ago) to secure yet another conference title. Wins over Arkansas and at West Virginia are good enough to nab the Bulldogs a #7 seed in Joe Lunardi's latest edition of Bracketology, but played Chaminade in the second round of the Maui Invitational and those other missed opportunities will likely cap Gonzaga's seed at a #5 - and that's with the club getting at two road wins at the triumvirate of BYU, Memphis, and SMC. However, with a few more shaky defeats, a double-digit seed even as WCC tourney champion isn't out of the realm of possibility.

Given that the Zags' biggest success came when they flew beneath the radar as a #10 or lower, they should feel at home in the underdog role. Yet after such prolonged excellence, one has to think that at this point, Few and company expect to be among the favorites every year. Without improvements on defense, though, it's hard to believe that a big run is coming in 2014, especially when the Zags have to face the dual-threat clubs that populate the field of every NCAA Tournament.

 

Statistical sources: ESPN.com, kenpom.com, SI.com, and Sports-Reference.com.


 

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