The truth is there in plain sight for those who choose to see it: It’s a season without dominant teams and a smaller gap than normal between the nominal “best” team and the 40th or 60th or 100th most capable. Simple as that.
So, the first lesson of the past 2½ months: Ignore the national rankings. It’s one of the best ways to remain open-minded and avoid needless astonishment on an almost nightly basis. The second: Reliability, both from game to game and over the long haul, should be appreciated even more.
Enter Gonzaga, which might be the best program in the country without a national championship since its emergence as a postseason darling in 1999. Other credible candidates for that honor: Arizona, Ohio State and Wisconsin. All have played for the NCAA title in the past two decades.
The Bulldogs dropped the 2017 national title game to North Carolina. In the two following years, they have been reliably good, making the regional semifinals as a No. 4 seed in 2018 and going a game further as a No. 1 seed last season. They were 65-9 and extended the program’s streak of NCAA tournament appearances to 21.
And now, with a massive makeover after losing its top four scorers from a season ago, Mark Few’s team is in the midst of another West Coast Conference title push, aiming for another No. 1 seed — it would be its fourth since 2013 — and maybe another deep March run.
Besides the absence of true juggernauts at, say, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan State or even Villanova or Virginia, there are plenty of reasons to explain why title hopes for Gonzaga (20-1 entering Saturday’s date with Pacific) have steadily crept upward.
Plenty of size. Gonzaga had a pair of junior forwards from its Elite Eight team (Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke) turn pro after last season. Hachimura was the Bulldogs’ leading scorer and the WCC player of the year. Clarke led the team in rebounds and blocks and earned third team all-America honors. Both were first-round picks in last summer’s NBA draft.
In their stead is an even bigger front line. Filip Petrusev, a 6-foot-11, 235-pounder, is the Zags’ top scorer (16.1 per game) and rebounder (7.7). Finally healthy, 6-10, 220-pound senior Killian Tillie is averaging 12.7 points since missing the season’s first four games. Freshman Drew Timme will be the next in a string of star Gonzaga bigs; the 6-10, 235-pounder is notching 9.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game off the bench.
Perimeter plug-and-play. An imposing frontcourt is a plus, but Gonzaga’s biggest problem coming into the season was who would complement its one returning backcourt starter, Corey Kispert. Josh Perkins and Geno Crandall graduated, and Zach Norvell Jr. turned pro after his sophomore year.
Joel Ayayi, a sophomore who played in just one of Gonzaga’s four NCAA tournament games last year, is a reliable contributor averaging 11.4 points. But Few also lured a pair of graduate transfers — one an established power-conference player, the other a do-everything mid-major guard — who have stabilized the lineup.
Admon Gilder sat out all of last season at Texas A&M with a knee injury and then a blood clot. Now, he’s an efficient wing providing between 20 and 30 solid minutes per game. Ryan Woolridge’s skill set, which helped him average 11.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists last season at North Texas, has translated beautifully, though the Zags would probably like him to improve his foul shooting.
Gilder and Woolridge are only one-year solutions, but those are precisely what Few needed to keep Gonzaga in contention for more than a league title this year.
No squandering nonconference chances. There’s always an onus on Gonzaga to do something in nonconference play, since there are few teams in the WCC guaranteed to help the Bulldogs’ profile come Selection Sunday. (Saint Mary’s usually does, and BYU is a more valuable foe this year than it had been since at least 2015).
Gonzaga went 5-1 against power-conference opponents. The victories over Arizona and Oregon are holding up well. Beating North Carolina is far less valuable than normal. A road defeat of Washington could still prove useful. The early drubbing of Texas A&M isn’t much help, but that’s no surprise.
The Bulldogs did what a good team is supposed to do in November and December, with their lone loss coming against Michigan on the final day of the Battle 4 Atlantis. Gonzaga’s early showing should be enough to bolster its seeding as long as it continues to demolish its conference foes as it has of late (average margin of victory in the past four games: 35.5 points).
Ruthless offense. Gonzaga led Division I in KenPom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric last season and is doing so again this winter, though not by as large of a margin.
Nonetheless, the Bulldogs are built to score and run. Gonzaga is playing at its fastest adjusted tempo under Few, an even more up-and-down approach than a season ago. The Zags have scored at least 83 points in 11 of their past 12 games, and there is little hint anyone they’ll see besides Saint Mary’s and possibly Pacific, both of which play at a methodical pace, that can slow Gonzaga’s exceptional scoring pace.
In the long term, defense could be a minor concern. The Bulldogs are good at that end of the floor (39th in adjusted defense, per KenPom) but not as suffocating as the top-20 defenses they fielded the previous three years.
Could that trip up Gonzaga as it vies for a national title? Maybe. But the Bulldogs are as steady as anyone in a largely unsteady season. Around this time last year, it seemed worthwhile to point out that the best way for a program to experience a breakthrough is to keep knocking on the door with quality teams. It happened for Virginia last season, and no one should be stunned if Gonzaga follows in the Cavaliers’ footsteps come early April.