UCLA has the glitz, UNLV the glamour and Arizona the sizzle, but the best team out west, at least for now, resides in sedate eastern Washington.
Gonzaga, that sneaky Top 25 team habitually glossed over, is beckoning for college basketball’s attention. It’s time to take notice.
The Bulldogs reeled off one of the more impressive early-season tournament runs over the weekend, handling Clemson, trouncing veteran-laden Oklahoma and tossing aside So-Con favorite Davidson to capture the Old Spice Classic title. The Fighting Fews outscored the Wildcats 30-16 over the final nine minutes of Sunday’s finale, turning a hotly contested tie ballgame into a box score laugher.
Mark Few knows just how good his team is, how much better, even, it can become. Most of the college basketball world east of Spokane, however, doesn’t have the faintest idea. For those unable or unwilling to catch any of this weekend’s tournament, allow me to clue you in: These Dogs have one hell of a bite.
As if the 34-point flogging of West Virginia during the Tip-Off Marathon or trouncing of Big 12 dark horse Oklahoma in Friday’s Old Spice Classic semifinal wasn’t telling enough, Gonzaga showed off its total package in the championship game versus Davidson. The Bulldogs flashed their offensive firepower, tallying 81 points on 70 possessions (1.56 PPP). They also flaunted their stingy defense, limiting Davidson to 36-percent shooting from the floor and just 67 points on 69 possessions.
Unlike many Gonzaga teams of old, this year’s group totes a fundamentally sound, stay-at-home defense to match the high-octane offense that the program usually produces. The Zags rank third in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, the first such time under Few the school has cracked the top-5 [at any point in the season] in the category. Elias Harris and Kevin Pangos are pests defensively and 7-foot red-shirt junior and Team Canada’s own Kelly Olynyk has markedly improved in protecting the rim since he last suited up two years ago.
The offensive end is where the Bulldogs will ultimately earn their keep. Gonzaga has a proven, do-everything star in Harris, a cavalcade of capable ball-handlers, multiple willing passers (Pangos and David Stockton) and the most balanced scoring attack in the nation. The Zags own six double-figure scorers and a seventh, Guy Landry Edi, averaging a tick better than nine points per game. No other team in America possesses six double-figure scorers, let alone almost seven.
The Bulldogs can win—better yet, do win—in any number of ways. They can zip by you off the dribble with the quickness of Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. They can punish you from behind the arc, where the team is shooting 37-percent on the season. Then Gonzaga can mix in its curveballs and changeups. The Zags can body you up inside, even throw out two 7-footers at one time. And in a pinch, they put out a lineup featuring a quartet of multi-skilled, matchup nightmares: Pangos, Bell Jr., Harris and Landry Edi.
Ken Pomeroy’s numbers crunching identifies Gonzaga as the third best team in the nation presently, as determined by Pythagorean efficiency rankings. While that estimate is a bit inflated, it does seem to more accurately reflect where the Bulldogs stand than the school’s No. 16/17 ranking according to the polls. The eye test and the matrixes don’t always conflict.
Gonzaga will embrace the distinction as “Best in the West,” which the school has rightfully earned three weeks into the season. But these Bulldogs seek more than national recognition and public approval. This team only cares about validation in the form of tournament hardware. And with a roster flush with talented, multi-dimensional players, the Zags are well-equipped to collect a lot of it this year.