At first glance, the stars of No. 11 Gonzaga’s 82-59 beatdown on three-seeded Utah would be Domantas Sabonis, who posted a double-double of 19 points and 10 rebounds, and Kyle Wiltjer, who continually stretched (and confused) the Utes defense with a trio of three-point field goals.
But look a bit deeper, and the backcourt — composed of Josh Perkins, Silas Melson and Eric McClellan — played a significant role in the rout: 37 points (on 50.0 percent shooting from beyond the arc), 10 rebounds and five assists. The guards have emerged as the catalyst for this Bulldogs’ NCAA tournament run, and their contributions are currently fueling what could be a path of historical proportions.
At the beginning of the 2016 season, the Zags’ guard-play was a matter of concern. There were issues of how the program would proceed without graduated players Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell. And during non-conference losses to UCLA, Texas A&M and Arizona, the trio was nonexistent, posting an effective field-goal percentage of just 30.7 percent.
But during the past month, Bulldogs Coach Mark Few’s backcourt began to match the contributions of his offensively-talented bigs: per HoopLens, a lineup with McClellan, Perkins and Kyle Dranginis (with Wiltjer and Sabonis at the four and five, respectively) is scoring 1.28 points per possession, while only allowing a scant 0.97 PPP. This same group has an effective field-goal percentage of nearly 60.0 percent. Sub out McClellan for Melson and the efficiency drops only slightly — 1.14 PPP/0.96 OPPP.
McClellan exemplifies the group’s progression: The 6-foot-4 wing dropped 61 points in the West Coast Conference tournament (eFG% of 51.2 percent) and has been on a tear in the NCAA tournament, scoring 31 points through the team’s two games. The Bulldogs will face the winner of the Syracuse-Middle Tennessee game in the Sweet Sixteen.
Opponents can’t effectively double Sabonis — the big is a good passer who innately recognizes which man is open due to the extra attention — and have to choose whether to fight through picks to prevent open looks for Perkins (who has made 46.3 percent of his threes in WCC play) or go under to ensure he can’t drive to kick out to waiting shooters or dump down to Sabonis or Wiltjer.
Without this versatility, Gonzaga’s offense becomes rote — made abundantly clear at the beginning of the season.