Is the Gonzaga Hype For Real This Time?

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I am not going to lie, I don’t follow college basketball as much as I used to. Probably the peak of my college basketball/Gonzaga fandom was my second year out of college, when I lived in San Jose, not far from Santa Clara university. (I probably went to about 4-5 Bronco games that year, including their contest against the Zags which resulted in an upset loss for Gonzaga and my first experience of a court storming; I hated it). After I moved from San Jose, to South Dakota, a college basketball wastelands of sorts, I grew to have more of an affinity for the NBA with each and every year of age.

At nearly 30 years old, coming back to write on college basketball on this blog feels weird. It was something I sort of disavowed to do a couple of years ago, opting to concentrate more on NBA and Euroleague analysis which has become more of my niche the past couple of years.

So why am I coming back to follow college basketball again? Coming back like a couple who split apart years ago, but somehow managed to find their way back to one another’s arms stronger than ever, bent to see if it will work out the second time around?

Mostly due to Gonzaga and their 14-0 start.

In all honesty, I know with the advent of ESPN and online streaming, following Gonzaga basketball isn’t all that difficult. Hell, I can follow games going in Belgrade, Serbia. Following the Zags shouldn’t be a problem. But, it’s tough being a Zag in the Midwest simply because there aren’t a lot of us here. Most Zag fans either live in the Pacific Northwest or West Coast. There is a contingent of Zags fans who are from Denver and Colorado, but that’s about eight hours driving distance away from my current home in Kansas City. Yes, in Big 12 country (i.e. Kansas Jayhawks country with K-State, Iowa State and Mizzou fans sprinkled in), people know about the Zags. They know about their general legacy (“they always choke in the tournament” they tell me) and know about players like Adam Morrison (“I don’t know why he wasn’t good,” they’d say).

But it’s not enough really. Talks are superficial and shallow at best. They don’t know about the extensive history of Zags basketball, including the empowering joys, and crushing disappointments. Maybe they know about the UCLA collapse in 2006, but thanks to NCAA On Demand, that is easy conversation fodder with anyone who likes or follows college basketball on a moderate basis. But to talk about the St. Mary’s rivalry? The WCC Tourney in Vegas? The 28-year-olds on BYU’s roster? Well…that goes unnoticed or uncared for here in the Conservative Red States in contrast with the Liberal West Coast.

So, I have distanced myself from Gonzaga, mainly because it’s just not productive nor worthwhile to majorly invest in it considering my current circumstances. And Gonzaga has had good teams worth paying attention to on occasion. I have enjoyed sporadically keeping tabs on Zags teams over the past few years in Kansas City, watching them from afar, being elated and equally crushed by them in that time span. Of course, all this usually experienced in private, with the exception of text/Facebook/now Snapchat conversations from time to time with some friends from college who are in closer proximity to live Zags basketball action (i.e. in Washington, Oregon, Idaho or California). Usually, the fandom doesn’t hit until late February/Early March, when it’s closer to WCC and consequently NCAA Tourney time.

Yet this year, it’s the first of January, and I’m trying to catch up on as much Zags basketball as I can. I watched the Pacific game in its entirety on ESPN 3. I re-watched the Arizona game via CBB Reddit Uploads on YouTube. I’m back analyzing Ken Pomeroy.com, studying up on other teams sure, but mostly breaking down the Zags.

I’m practically two months ahead of schedule from my serious Zags “fandom” over the past three years. And I’m doing this because this really may be the best Zags team I have ever seen, followed, or studied up on in my years of Zags fandom (since my Dad is an alum, that includes my early years during the Dan Fitzgerald era).

I’m wanting to see if this Zags team actually will live up to the hype.


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Zags basketball fandom is like most irrational college basketball or even sports followings. Like Duke’s Cameron Crazies in the East Coast and Jayhawks fans here in the Midwest, they are passionate, loyal, and usually unconditionally biased toward Gonzaga teams each and every year. Zags fans swoon like the Pacific tide, changing moods and expectations quickly and often. A big win over a non-conference opponent like SMU or UCLA, and all of a sudden, Gonzaga is a Final Four shoe in. An unexpected loss to BYU or USF, or a season sweep to the rival Gaels, and all of a sudden Mark Few is a shitty coach who is going to be responsible for the Zags missing the tournament for the first time since the Nixon administration (okay, not that long; Clinton administration). I have seen fans overly rate former Zags, with Zags fans clamouring that Morrison was a shoe-in NBA All Star to Sam Dower being a second-round pick talent (neither was true). Zags fans are passionate, but in the grand scheme of things, they prefer to live in their bubble when it comes to the basketball world, not allowing practicality or reality to enter their “overly fond” feelings when it comes to GU hoops.

And that’s fine, as that’s what being a fan is about. I have grown out of that over the years the more I have branched out with basketball (i.e. following more NBA and Euroleague), but I still have friends or know former classmates who still live in that bubble with basketball and it’s cool. If I still lived in the West Coast or Northwest, maybe I would follow that lead as well. Be irrational with Few. Think Pangos should be a NBA sixth-man. Always have the Zags winning the national title in my NCAA Tournament work pool.

Maybe not though. I have become a more inquisitive type since I graduated Gonzaga with my bachelor’s degree. I used to believe in things like “heart” and “smarts” and “grit” as the key to a Zags victory. Now, I believe in skill sets, athleticism, matchups and data when it comes to evaluating how strong Gonzaga basketball teams and players are on annual basis. Maybe it’s a sign of the maturation process of basketball fanhood. Maybe I’m just becoming a fucking adult. But I have left the bubble of typical “Zags” fanhood long ago, and this is one bubble I can’t push myself back into, much like the bubble of Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy myths.

During times when I make it back to the West Coast for the Holidays or special circumstances, I do get the chance to meet up with old college friends and discuss the state of the Zags and WCC basketball. This past Christmas season was no exception. I met with a couple of friends in Midtown Sacramento and we discussed the Zags. They told me how loaded this team was. They told me how big a difference Nigel Williams-Goss made on this team. They talked about Zach Collins looking like a diaper dandy. They sung the merits of transfers such as Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Williams, guys I had my reservations about considering Gonzaga’s shaky history with transfers recently who never lived up to the hype in Spokane. (Yes, there was Kyle Wiltjer, but there were also examples like Gerard Coleman, Bol Kong, and Angel Nunez too.) They talked about USF being a plucky dark horse, that St. Mary’s continued to play no one in non-conference, and how Terry Porter, the former Blazer, was doing a decent job in his first year as head coach of the Pilots.

It made me realize something. I missed the Zags a lot. I had missed the conversations. I had missed analyzing the WCC and the Zags. Yes, we probably had a beer too many at Bar West, and probably should have been focusing more on getting the attentions of single women than talking about Kyle Smith’s 3-point heavy approach with the Dons. But I loved it nonetheless. In a sea of endless Bill Self and “When is Fred Hoiberg returning to college basketball?” talk, immersing myself in the “Zag bubble” for a temporary period brought not only fond nostalgia, but comfort in the sense that no matter how far apart I became from Spokane or the West Coast in terms of years or distance, I could still come back, without warning or preparation, and still ignite that flame for mid-major West Coast basketball. A beer here. A Diamond Head Classic game there. Snapchat sharing of the Gonzaga-Arizona game in Los Angeles. A memory or two of the Kennel. It all brings one back, even for someone who has become a “grounded” basketball fan in general (i.e. less irrational or passionate about their team).

So when I touched down back in Kansas City on the 27th, I got out my laptop. I searched games on Watch ESPN. And I became determined to see if this Zags team is for real, much like my more “in-tuned” friends had preached back in California’s capital.


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Gonzaga is currently ranked 10th in Ken Pomeroy and is currently ranked 7th in the polls entering this week. They are 14-0 and have four “A” quality wins according to Ken Pom: neutral floor wins over Florida (14th), Iowa State (28th), and Arizona (18th), and a win over Tennessee (65th) in Nashville. The schedule hasn’t been extremely challenging (138th strongest non-conference schedule according to Ken Pom), though their win over San Diego State (currently 64th) could get better if SDSU picks it up in MWC play.

The best and most recent comparison of this team should be the 2015 Zags, who went 29-2 in the regular season, and 35-3 overall, making it to the Elite 8, where they lost to eventual national champion Duke. Heading into conference play, the Zags that year had three “A” quality wins: UCLA (40th) at Pauley Pavilion; Georgia (35th) at MSG; and St. John’s (50th) also at MSG (a home game for them).  They also had a narrow “A” quality loss to Arizona, whom they lost to in OT in Tucson. Finish that with a “B” quality win over SMU (26th) at home in Spokane, and you could argue that the non-conference performance in 2015 was every bit as impressive as the current Zags’ one.

The one thing that the 2015 Zags may have over the 2017 Zags in terms of legacy and outlook is the fact that the WCC was much stronger in 2015 than today. In 2015, the WCC was the 8th best conference according to Ken Pom, which was better than even the American Athletic Conference (which includes programs like Cincy, SMU and Temple). Today, the WCC is rated as the 11th best conference, behind other Mid-Major conferences such as the Missouri Valley and Mountain West. The dramatic difference mostly is due to BYU being much weaker than in years past, as they are going through a bit of a rebuilding year after losing six years of key players like Kyle Collinsworth and Tyler Haws (the Cougars are currently 11-4 and ranked 56th in Ken Pom’s rankings; which is where they were last year roughly). Yes, St. Mary’s is still strong (ranked 16th according to Ken Pom), but the WCC needs a good BYU team to be a serious conference, and with BYU not what they were two years ago, this not only hurts the WCC in the current, but also the Zags’ legacy and postseason outlook (i.e. mostly seeding).

But let’s get away from those kinds of numbers and just look at the talent itself. Can this Zags team compare? Could the 2017 team match up with the core of Pangos, Bell, Wiltjer, and Sabonis?

I would say yes, as of now.

First off, Przemek Karnowski’s injury last year may have hurt the Zags’ frontcourt depth a season ago, but it has been a blessing in disguise for this year’s campaign. I cannot really recall a player in college basketball recently who has the pure size of Karnowski and is able to utilize it so well. Sabonis comes to mind from last season, but even though he had Karnowski “post presence” and skills, he doesn’t have Karnowski’s 7’2, nearly 3 bills frame. Watching Karnowski in the block is a godsend for fans of old-school, play-in-the paint basketball, akin to the older John Thompson Georgetown teams, which had Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning in the post (not to be confused with John Thompson the Third Georgetown teams which are boring and underwhelming). It’s amazing how much he has developed from his rawer freshman days, when he still had a lot to learn when it came to moves and position around the blocks. Considering his 118.4 offensive rating though, it is obvious that not only how much he has progressed, but also how he will stand out as one of the most accomplished and talented post players in Zag history.

But while Karnowski is the link from that 2015 team, everything else tends to weigh in favor of this year’s team in comparison to that Elite Eight squad. Wiltjer was a better shooter, but Collins may be a better overall post talent to complement Karnowski, especially on the defensive end. Pangos could be deadly from beyond the arc, but he could not handle defensive pressure like Williams-Goss, whose 6’3 athletic frame and ability to beat players off the dribble as well as from beyond the arc (he’s shooting around 39 percent from three) make him the point guard Zags fans have been dreaming about (and that is saying something considering the Zags’ history at the position). Furthermore, the quartet of Perkins (who was the Zags’ point last year and has been able to play more off-guard, which is more his strength)-Melson-Matthews-Williams definitely is a more efficient and well-rounded group in comparison to the Bell-Dranginis-Wesley-Nunez one of 2015. And lastly, even though the foreign wild card of this year, Killian Tillie, pales in comparison to the one of 2015 (Sabonis), he could become a special player as well in a year or two, albeit in a different way from Sabonis. Tillie is the younger brother of Kim, who is playing well with Baskonia, one of the top teams in the Euroleague currently. And Killian flashes the same kind of inside-outside skill set that makes his older brother a key cog for the Basque club. While I don’t see Tillie with Sabonis’ upside, he could be a more athletic version of his older brother, which would be a huge boost in the future for a Gonzaga team that already has depth in the frontcourt with Rui Hachimura (who will play more when Karnowski leaves) and Jakob Larsen (who suffered an injury in the pre-season).

It’s amazing how far the Zags have come from their early 2000’s days. My friends and I talked about it a lot in Sacramento during my recent trip: premiere talent comes to Spokane now. The Zags used rely on under-recruited northwest guys like Morrison, Sean Mallon and Josh Heytvelt or under-the-radar foreign players like Kevin Pangos and JP Batista. Now, they are getting premiere transfers, foreign talent and Top-100 high schools players. Furthermore, not only is Few’s staff acquiring them, but seamlessly transitioning them into the system and culture of the Zags program without hitch. I thought there would be some growing pains for this Gonzaga team considering how much they relied on Wiltjer and Sabonis a year ago. Now, I’m just wondering if anybody in the WCC will be able to give the Zags a true test until the NCAA Tournament. Yes, St. Mary’s is good and an offensive machine. But on individual matchups alone? There isn’t a single Gael who may be better than what the Zags will put on the floor.

I have seen the Zag hype train before. I grew up and was educated in it. The Dan Dickau era. The Blake Stepp era. The Adam Morrison era. The Jeremy Pargo-Matt Bouldin-Austin Daye era (i.e. they all were good, but no one established himself as the star, which is why they were disappointing). The Kelly Olynyk era. The Pangos-era. The Wiltjer-Sabonis era. All those eras had hype. Final Four hype. National Championship hype.

And they all fell short. They all in varying ways disappointed the irrational, bubble-encapsulated Zags fans, including myself.

The cautious or irrational Zags fan in me would say to “take time” with this year’s Zags team and wait until the first St. Mary’s game. He would tell me to know history. Remember the scars. Remember BYU and the hockey goon Kafusi. Remember the NCAA Tourney is about matchups and luck.

The inner Zags fan in me tells me not to believe the hype…not just yet. Give it a little bit more time, perhaps halfway through the WCC slate.

But I have grown more seasoned and level-headed over the years with basketball in general. All basketball at all levels. Not just Gonzaga basketball. I’ll be 30 in six months. I’m not the same Zags fan I was when I was 21-22 years old and drinking pitchers of Kokanee at the Bulldog when it actually was still a bar and not whatever the hell it is now.

That inner, irrational Zags fan doesn’t carry as much weight as it used to. Superstition and “fandom” don’t run my life or how I feel about Gonzaga basketball or the sport as a whole. Data. Matchups. Talent. The system. The process. The growing evolution of college basketball toward the professional game.

That’s what matters more to me now. Not collapses in Oakland or buzzer beaters over Western Kentucky or “they always choke” mantras from college basketball fans or analysts who still believe the 3-point shot is overrated.

The inner Zag fan in me is not dead. But it just doesn’t have the voice it used to. And I’m glad it doesn’t. He was a bitch to put up with anyways during those years.

So fuck it. I’ll say it without holding back:

This team is for real. This team should be a Final Four and National Championship contender.

Don’t overthink it…

Just believe the Gonzaga hype.

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NBA Bound? Why Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis Should Declare for the Draft

Domantas Sabonis was key to the Zags’ success in March and should be a NBA first round pick this upcoming draft.

If you want to understand how the Zags were a minute away from going to the Elite Eight, look no further than the triumvirate of guard Eric McCllelan, forward Kyle Wiltjer and center Domantas Sabonis. In the six games the Zags played in March (in which they went 5-1), the three players all took Ken Pom MVP awards in the games they played, with McCllelan earning three (Utah, St. Mary’s and Portland), Sabonis earning two (Seton Hall and Syracuse) and Wiltjer one (BYU). The combination of McCllelan’s streaky scoring and tough defense, Wiltjer’s offensive versatility and Sabonis’ post scoring and rebounding presence made these Zags tough to beat in March, and after Syracuse’s upset win over Virginia to earn a spot in the Final Four, it definitely makes you wonder what could have been possible had the Zags took better care of the ball in the closing minutes in Chicago.

While there is no questioning the three’s impact in the past month, one of these players will be the sole focus of Gonzaga fans’ attention and that is Sabonis. McCllelan and Wiltjer have exhausted their eligibility and will now be transitioning to professional careers in some kind of capacity this summer (Wiltjer could be a second round pick; McCllelan most likely will be looking D-League or overseas). Sabonis on the other hand has just completed his sophomore year, and still has two years left to wear a Gonzaga uniform.

That is if he wants it. Because to be perfectly frank, not only is he a much more sought after NBA prospect than either of the graduating seniors, he also is one of the Zags’ best pro prospects in a long time, and has a chance to be the Zags’ first First Round pick since Kelly Olynyk in 2013.

Now, make no mistake, Sabonis is not really a bonafide lottery pick by any means and this is a pretty loaded draft (unlike Olynyk’s where there wasn’t really a consensus no. 1). There is top “one and done talent” in Ben Simmons from LSU (the consensus No. 1), Brandon Ingram from Duke, and Jalen Brown and Ivan Rabb from California. Polished college scorers like Buddy Hield from Oklahoma and Kris Dunn from Providence. And high-upside European prospects like Dragan Bender from Maccabi Tel Aviv and Timothe Luwawu from Mega Leks of the Adriatic League. Without elite height or wingspan, and average to slightly below athleticism, there is no question that Sabonis’ pales at first glance in comparison to many of the eligible prospects who are expected to enter this summer’s NBA Draft.

Many college coaches would not encourage Sabonis to declare considering his circumstances. To most college coaches, if you’re not a lottery pick, the risk is too high and the reward is too great. Famously, Tyler Ennis declared for the NBA Draft though he was guaranteed to be a first round pick, but not a lottery one, much to the chagrin of his head coach Jim Boeheim. Boeheim argued that Ennis would go into a tough situation without much financial security if he was drafted outside the lottery. And, as much as I dislike the whiny Boehiem, he has proven to be right. Ennis has been flip flopped around the league and has probably spent as much time on a D-League floor than a NBA one.

But, Sabonis is a special player, and while his natural gifts and athleticism may not be “first round” worthy, other aspects of his game make him a great value that will not only be seen and recognize by a NBA team, but perhaps even utilized in some kind of playing role as early as next year. Sabonis is not a project by any means, and that alone will give him a lot of value to teams that are looking to build immediately competitive teams through the draft.

So, why should Sabonis leave and not stay for perhaps another “March Run”? Here are two reasons why Sabonis should stay not just for the benefit of himself but to the benefit of the Gonzaga basketball program as well.


Reason No.1: Sabonis’ stock is probably as high as it ever will be and there really isn’t anything he can truly work on in 2017 to make him a better prospect

I’m not going to pretend to be a “draft” expert by any means. I watch a lot of basketball, college and NBA included (I subscribe to NBA League pass). I will let other, more qualified writers (like here and here) determine Sabonis’ exact stock in comparison to other eligible prospects for this draft. But the fact of the matter is this: nobody in college basketball has raised their stock more in the past month than Sabonis.

First off, look at the numbers: Sabonis averaged 17.3 ppg and 11.5 rpg on 61.3 percent shooting from the floor and posted a 76.9 percent free throw percentage in 33 games this year. If you go into the advanced numbers, the Lithuanian looks even better: he posted a 120.0 adjusted offensive rating according to Ken Pom, with a 115.0 adjusted offensive rating against Tier A competition, much better marks than McCllelan (110) and Wiltjer (105). His 28.2 defensive rebounding rate was 14th best in the nation, and his 65.1 true shooting percentage ranked him 21st in the nation. And to wrap it all up, according to Ken Pom’s national player of the year ranking, Sabonis ranks eighth, putting him in the same class with other more heralded players such as Perry Ellis (who ranks 5th), Georges Niang (who ranks 6th) and Virginia’s Anthony Gill (who actually is behind him at 10th). In a game and professional league that is becoming more and more reliant on analytics and advanced numbers, Sabonis satisfies the requirements as a legitimate first round pick and possible sleeper lottery pick.

But if you’re one of those guys who doesn’t buy into all the stats (i.e. Seth Davis), then look at what Sabonis has done on the floor. His footwork is impeccable for a post player, and his bevy of fakes and pivot moves makes up for his lack of length and athleticism. Furthermore, his motor is non-stop and without a doubt, Sabonis carried the Zags numerous times this year emotionally, especially in big games such as the WCC Championship and in the NCAA Tournament. But the biggest crowning achievement? His defensive shutdown of lottery pick Jakob Poeltel of Utah in the second round. Poeltel came into the game as one of the best offensive post players in the country, as evidenced by his 17.3 ppg and 8.9 rpg in 34 games and 124.1
adjusted offensive rating for the year. But against Sabonis? The Austrian center was limited to 5 points on 2 of 5 shooting and only nabbed 4 rebounds, good for an offensive rating of 77, his second lowest rating of the year (his lowest was 66 in a contest against Colorado on January 8th). Despite giving up a couple of inches and some considerable weight to Sabonis, the Lithuanian pushed Poeltel off the block on constant occasion and made him a non-factor whenever he was on the floor. If critics needed confirmation that Sabonis could handle himself against NBA bigs, then they were given a rude awakening after his sterling performance against Utah (he also scored 19 points, nabbed 10 rebounds and sported an offensive rating of 134).

And that’s the issue with Sabonis coming back. Unless he leads Gonzaga to the Final Four next year, I can’t imagine his stock getting any higher. He really has done all he could do to prove that he can play at the NBA level. Furthermore, there is nothing major that he needs to work on that another year of college would help him with. He has played well against good competition in high-pressure moments (the WCC and NCAA Tournament). He has put up good numbers. He has diversified his game, adding a sneaky good mid-range shot. Yes, Sabonis is left-hand dominant, and the athleticism isn’t there, but I can’t imagine Sabonis really getting considerably better in those categories with another year of college. For some players, coming back made sense. Olynyk needed to get stronger and he could put time in the weight room to do so. Sabonis is already pretty strong and has a NBA frame, and that will get more refined with more round-the-clock training at the professional level. Team-wise, yes, the Zags would be a heck of a lot better with Sabonis. But individually? There really is no incentive for Sabonis to come back, and I think he will realize that and enter the draft with his stock so high already (and could even go up more due to his father being Arvydas Sabonis).

Reason #2: The Zags will be garnering a lot of talent next year, and Sabonis returning could clog things up and result in potential transfers.

While we still do not know Przemek Karnowski’s off-season intentions (he probably has more to gain by staying after missing the year due to back injury but you never know), there will be an influx of talent this off-season that will lessen the loss of Sabonis. Center Ryan Edwards, though limited offensively, is a big body that will thrive with more minutes. And furthermore, the Zags will also add Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams, a stretch 4 type who could play small or power forward who has already been practicing with the team (along with Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss who could compete with Josh Perkins for the starting point guard spot). But the incoming freshman class will include McDonald’s All-American Zach Collins, a 6-11 center from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas that is the 37th ranked player according to ESPN, and European prospects Killian Tillie, a 6-8 forward from France and Jacob Larsen, a 6-10 F/C from Denmark. Considering the Zags’ success with European prospects, it would not be surprising if Tillie and/or Larsen are better than their initial recruiting rankings.

Add all that with Karnowski probably back and somebody’s feelings will get hurt on the bench and that could mean a potential transfer at the end of next season. As solid as Mark Few is, he definitely has his issues spreading minutes out, and that has definitely had an impact when it comes to players leaving the program (though for the most part, this hasn’t hurt the Zags with the exception of Ryan Spangler, who to be fair transferred more to be closer to home than any beef he had with Gonzaga). Yes, there is considerable risk going with more unproven commodities to fill in Sabonis’ spot, but if Karnowski is back it should soften the blow and allow the young guys to grow. Even if Karnwoski is back, the experience returning at guard in Perkins and Melson will also help the post players as they grow accustomed to the college game (though if Karnowski is not back, expect some early losses in the non-conference slate).

Yes, Sabonis would make the Zags a potential Final Four candidate and he would be a Naismith-watch player at the start of the season. But, in this day and age of constant transfers, the Zags would probably be best served if Sabonis declared, and that way, they could determine roles in the post positions this off-season during workouts.

Final thoughts on Sabonis

As a Gonzaga fan, I have to think that Sabonis probably was one of the best frontcourt players in Gonzaga history, up there with Olynyk, Robert Sacre and JP Batista. In fact, I would go out on a limb and say he may be the best post player in Gonzaga history as no other player flashed his combo of efficiency and intensity on a night in and night out basis. Sabonis was fun to watch, especially as he yelled after And 1’s and got after refs when he felt he was called. He was a guilty pleasure to watch as a Gonzaga fan, and it is a shame I wasn’t able to watch Gonzaga as much as I wanted to this year. If I had followed Gonzaga as closely as I did in years past, I probably would have a poster of Sabonis in my classroom.

But, I love and know the NBA game, and Sabonis is ready and would be a fool to stay. And to be honest, that’s okay not just for him, but for the Zags. Sometimes you need to move on, and by moving on, Gonzaga can go into this off-season forming their identity without him with the collection of young, though unproven, talent on the horizon.

As a Gonzaga fan, I know that is scary. After all, this year the Zags were so close to snapping their long-time NCAA Tournament streak, and without Sabonis’ the Zags might have been in the NIT losing to Valpo rather than Syracuse. But all good things come to an end, and even though Sabonis leaving would be bittersweet, it is best for both parties involved not just for next year, but the next few as well.

Good luck Domas. I know I’ll be enjoying seeing you get after NBA refs on League Pass next year.

Data Sheet Analysis: A Look at How WCC Coaches Utilize Their Benches

If bench minutes history over the past four years means anything, those Gaels in the warm ups know their time on the floor is few and far between with coach Randy Bennett

I was looking up some data on Ken Pom.com (I know I’m addicted to that site), and I found something interesting. This season, many WCC programs rank near the bottom of the nation in terms of utilizing their bench. Only one team ranks in the Top-100 in terms of bench minutes percentage (Pacific), a stark contrast in comparison to years past from WCC teams. While you can access the Data Sheet on Bench Minutes on the “Data Sheets” Page, I’ll post the numbers right here to give you a context of the lack of time the bench players see in the WCC.

Team Bench Min % Nat’l Rank
Pacific 37.3 65
Santa Clara 34.2 120
Loyola Marymount 33.8 130
Pepperdine 33.7 132
Portland 30.6 201
San Francisco 30.1 217
Gonzaga 28.7 253
BYU 28.6 256
San Diego 27.5 274
St. Mary’s 23.1 333

 

Now, there are a variety of reasons why certain coaches utilize their bench less than other rival coaches. For some, it all can depend on a coaches’ style. A team that presses more, plays more in transition is more likely to use their bench to keep fresh legs on the court to play to their system. This is the case for a program like Arkansas who leads the nation in bench minutes percentage at 45.3 percent. Mike Anderson, a former Nolan Richardson disciple, plays a full court, high-pressure defensive style (i.e. “40 Minutes of Hell”). In order to maximize his team’s effectiveness (especially on the defensive ends), constant bench usage is necessary. Of course, the correlation between tempo and bench isn’t always the case as BYU plays the fastest tempo in the nation (77.6) but is in the bottom when it comes to bench minutes usage.

One big misconception though is that talent depth is a reason for more bench minutes usage. Teams who have more talent on the roster, should surely use their bench more than programs who are thin talent wise. So, if this thought is true, a team like Duke would be utilizing their bench than say a program like Montana State. That isn’t necessarily the case. When it comes to the Top-50 for teams who use their benches the most, only six (Arkansas, Purdue, Iowa, Texas A&M, Houston, Georgia, Louisville, Oregon State) came from major conferences, and only one (Louisville) made the NCAA Tournament a year ago (though Iowa was certainly deserving). The same proves to be true in the WCC. The top-3 favorites (Gonzaga, BYU and St. Mary’s) in the conference rank in the bottom of the conference in terms of bench minutes percentage while the ones at the top were relative afterthoughts going into the season (though Pacific did make the NCAA Tournament a year ago albeit as a Big West representative, a much weaker conference than the WCC).

But one year is just one year, right? After all, talent changes quite often and systems may differ depending on personnel. So, I wanted to take a look at which coaches tended to use their benches the most, and which ones did the least. To find this out, I went to Ken Pom.com, found each team’s bench minutes percentage from 2011-2014 and then averaged out the four year span. The results are shown in this graph:

As you can see the four year results provide some interesting trends. For starters, Randy Bennett seems to be the leading coach in the WCC who trusts his bench the least. His 26.4 percent four year average for bench minutes percentage correlates to the 23.1 percent bench minutes percentage we have seen from his squad this year (though even for his standards he trusts his bench even less so this year, as it is 3.1 percent below his four year average). Rex Walters has sort of employed the same “shallow rotation” with his Dons squads, as his 29 percent four year average is was second-least in the conference. Considering the amount of transfers Walters has seen in his tenure on “The Hilltop” it’s interesting to wonder if his “strict rotation” (or lack of bench utilizaiton) was a reason for a lot of his transfers or just one of the effects.

LMU leads the WCC in bench minutes percentage over the four year span with an average of 34.1, barely edging out Eric Reveno and Portland who finished with a four year average of 34. Portland’s finish is interesting because they never led the conference in bench minutes percentage from 2011-2014, but they finished second in the conference in 2012 and 2013, so that explains their close finish to LMU, who led the conference in bench minutes percentage in 2012 (they had the 37th highest bench minutes percentage in the nation that year as well).

The most eye-popping case is at Gonzaga with Mark Few as his bench minutes percentages have fluctuated wildly over the past four years. As you can see by his four year average, Few obviously numbers and minutes-wise utilizes his bench a decent amount, but that sharply contrasts from what we have seen this year (hence, their third-place finish in the four year average with an average of 33.7). In 2011, the Zags led the conference in bench minutes percentage at 38.5 percent (30th highest in the nation). Last year, they ranked fourth in the conference but still finished 81st in the nation (2013 was a year for bench players in the WCC as only BYU was outside the Top-200 in terms of bench minutes percentage) with a percentage of 34.8. But Few at times has showed years where he has relatively little trust in his reserves. In 2012, he trusted his bench less than the 4 year average, as the bench only averaged 32.7 minutes and this year, he showed even more of a lack of trust, as the Zags reserves are averaging only 28.7 minutes per game. Now, the lack of depth in the front court could be the main cause of this, but it is interesting to see how minutes have plunged at times in the Zags program, compounded by the fact that they have had many transfers over the past few years which ultimately led to this lack of depth for this Zags squad (just look at Gonzaga transfer Ryan Spangler who is starting for Oklahoma now). Few has showed a short leash with players on the bench, even though his teams have been the deepest in the conference talent-wise for years. Even this year’s team has a lot of depth on the perimeter, but as displayed from the numbers, he doesn’t utilize them as much as other, lesser-talented teams in the conference.

All these numbers are up for interpretation and as stated before, there are lots of reasons why certain coaches utilize their bench more or less. Whatever the reason, it is interesting to see the numbers laid out, and see how each coaches’ process will fare out for them over the conference season and into conference tournament play and beyond.

Analyzing Gonzaga’s Defensive Play Against WCC Foes

Przemek Karnowski (24, white) has helped the Zags be one of the best squads defensively in the WCC

Mark Few has always earned his reputation as an “offensive” coach. Regularly, his teams rank in the top 20-30 in terms of offensive efficiency according to Ken Pom’s ratings. He has produced offensively efficient players from the well-known like Adam Morrison and Kelly Olynyk to the lesser-known JP Batista and Kyle Bankhead. This year, the Zags continue to be efficient in the offensive end, as they are rated 10th in the nation with a 117.4 offensive rating this year (which has helped them be rated as the 18th best team in the nation according to KenPom).

But, the Zags wouldn’t be sitting alone on top of the WCC now with a 4-0 record if they were just good offensively. Much to its credit, there are a lot of good offensive teams in the WCC this season. St. Mary’s has continued their tradition of producing great offense under coach Randy Bennett (though he is sitting out the first 5 games of conference play due to a recruiting violation issue), as they are posting a rating of 116.5, 13th best in the nation. San Francisco and BYU have also been solid squads on the offensive end, as they are posting ratings of 111.0 and 110.4, good for 48th and 57th, respectively. If there’s one thing the WCC doesn’t lack, it’s an ability to score points (only San Diego is not rated in the top-150 in terms of offensive efficiency).

What has separated the Zags in conference play so far has been their defensive performance. Despite missing Gary Bell for three games and Sam Dower battling through injuries, the Zags have posted extremely stellar efficiency numbers on the defensive end so far in WCC play (just accounting WCC games). The Zags lead in six of the nine defensive categories on Ken Pom.com, and in two of them they finish second. They are the top team currently in terms of effective field goal against (39.2 percent), turnovers caused (19.4 percent), offensive rebounds prevented (22.3 percent), 2-point percentage against (35.8 percent), block percentage (18.2 percent) and Adjusted Defensive rating (82.2). To put into context how good their start has been from a numbers standpoint, their Adjusted Defensive rating is 19.7 points better than the second-best team (BYU), their eFG percentage prevented is 5.6 percent better than the next best team (Pepperdine) and their block percentage is 4.7 percent better than the next best team (Portland). The Zags have been absolutely dominating teams on the defensive end so far in conference play, and if you don’t necessarily buy into the advanced numbers, you can just look at the scores: against two teams rated in the top-40 in Adjusted Offense (USF and St. Mary’s), the Zags held them to a combined 92 points and 0.60 Points Per Possession and 0.80 points per possession, respectively. Additionally, against St. Mary’s, the Zags held one of the WCC’s best and most efficient players, Brad Waldow to only five points and a season low 48 offensive rating (his previous low this year was 103 against George Mason).

Yes, the Zags’ numbers are amazing. However, what makes it more amazing is that they’re succeeding in an area where they were supposed to be weak this season. They lost their top-two post players (Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris) from a year ago, and many pundits (including myself), figured the front court was going to be an issue for the Zags this season. While the scoring and offensive production has been inconsistent, defensively it has been a strength for them. Their 2 point percentage against is 5.1 percent better than the next best squad, and one of the reasons for that has been the defensive play of center Przemek Karnowski.

I tweeted this yesterday after the game:

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Karnowski has been a bit inconsistent this year on the offensive side (only a 100.2 Adjusted Offensive rating, compounded by a 48 percent free throw percentage and a 100.0 FT rate; lots of chances and low percentages don’t result in efficiency). On the defensive side of the ball though, he has given the Zags a true defensive presence that the Zags haven’t had before. At 7-1 and 305 pounds, Karnowski is a load in the post and makes it not only tough for opposing WCC post players to get position on him, but he is effective in taking away driving lanes for WCC guards as well. That was especially evident against USF and St. Mary’s as not only did he shut down an elite offensive player (Waldow), but he also provided a wall for the Dons and Gaels to get to the hoop, leading to the sub-par performances each team experienced in Spokane.

Additionally, the subtraction of Olynyk and Harris, while devastating on the offensive end has actually been good on the defensive end, as Karnowski may be a better post presence defensively than either of them, especially Olynyk (who was the true center last year). Numbers wise Karnowski bests Olynyk in terms of block percentage (8.6 to Olynyk’s 5.1) and defensive rebounding percentage (24.2 to Olynyk’s 20.5). But even on the tape, Karnowski shows excellent instincts for a post man, as he knows what to do well and understands how to use his body as a wall to protect the hoop, even if he may not be the most athletic big man in the WCC. One of the problems for Olynyk was that he would get out of position at times on the defensive end, which would not only hurt in terms of allowing points at the rim, but also make the Zags vulnerable to allowing second chance shots. That hasn’t been the case with Karnowski this year. He stays his ground well and is able to do just enough to get in the kind of defensive position to take away easy shots in the paint (something you couldn’t always say out Olynyk). And, to make things better, Karnowski doesn’t sacrifice rebounding position to defend shots, and this has been a reason why the Zags have been much better at preventing offensive rebounds this year than a season ago (32.2 percent offensive rebounds prevented rate, third best in the WCC).

That being said, Karnowski is not alone in terms of helping the defensive effectiveness of this Zags squad. With the Polish center taking away the middle with his solid frame, strong defensive instincts and ability to limit second chances shots (he has a team high 24.2 defensive rebounding percentage, 63rd in the nation), his presence has complemented the Zags’ perimeter defenders nicely. The biggest surprise contributor has been 6-5 wing man Kyle Draginis who has seen an uptick in playing time since Bell’s injury. Draginis has the length and speed to frustrate opposing guard, and it has been obvious that the defense has improved since he has earned more minutes in the absence of Bell. Furthermore, his 2.5 steal percentage has been a nice surprise for a team that leads the WCC in turnovers caused percentage. Of course, Draginis has not been the sole reason for their superb play on the perimeter defensively. David Stockton, though out matched at times physically, continues to be a pesky defensive player, as he is second on the team in steal rate at 3.3 percent. Gerard Coleman, who was buried for a while on the bench until he earned more minutes with Bell’s injury, leads the team in steal percentage (3.6 percent) and has the kind of wing span that belies his size (6-4) and makes him a matchup problem at times for opposing guards. And Angel Nunez may be the biggest wild card of all, as he has the size and length to guard smaller forwards on the perimeter or small post players in the paint (though strength-wise, that is still a question). The bottom line? The Zags have all kinds of weapons on the perimeter, and the presence of Karnowski and a healthy Dower down low make those wing players able to be more aggressive on the defensive end, knowing they have that presence in the paint taking away the drive at the basket.

At the end of the 2006 season, it seemed like Few was at a crossroads in terms of what to emphasize defensively as a coach. Though he has produced good defensive squads his first years, in 2005, they ranked as the 4th best team in the WCC in terms of defensive efficiency and they rated as the third-best team in the WCC in 2006. The reason? He had excellent offensive players in Adam Morrison and JP Batista and it seemed that the Zags went into contests with the idea that they could simply outscore and provide just another defense to win. There was some success with this model, as they did reach the Sweet 16 in 2006 and lost to a team that eventually went to the NCAA Championship in 2006 (UCLA). Instead though of preferring that style, he has recruited more defensively talented and inclined players since the Morrison-Batista era (they haven’t ranked below second in defensive rating in the WCC since 2006) and that is still relevant today, even with the WCC offensively probably at its most talented in comparison to years past. The Zags are not just able to scrap by defensively, but they have showed that they are able to dominate squads (and good offensive squads) in the WCC. In a conference where there is much more parity than in years past, the Zags emphasis and ability on defense this year may be the chief reason why they rise above the pack for another consecutive season.

Why Kevin Pangos May Be the Greatest Guard in Recent Gonzaga History

Awww…memories

First off, I am a Gonzaga alum. My dad wasn’t a Gonzaga alum, but he went to Gonzaga for his first three years of undergrad (he finished at USF, where my grandfather went, so USF always feels like a second-favorite team to me). I lived in Spokane for six years when I was little. So, maybe I am biased toward Gonzaga in some small subtle ways when evaluating WCC teams (though I have gotten better at respecting the WCC as a whole over the past few years; hence the creation of this blog). However, if there is one thing I know, it’s Gonzaga basketball history. I remember a day when John Rillie and Kyle Dixon were the starting backcourt for the Zags (Yes, Rillie and Dixon. I’m sure a lot of WCC basketball fans just sports referenced those two).  I’m not just a recent fan of Gonzaga who started liking the Zags because of the Adam Morrison days or if you’re real hardcore, the Dan Dickau days. I’ve seen Gonzaga when they’ve been great and I’ve seen them when they were fair-to-middling (I don’t remember the days when they outright sucked, which is always exaggerated in my mind; Gonzaga wasn’t Gonzaga back then, but people who say the sucked grossly overstate it; they were more like Portland is now). I’ve seen games when they used to sport the Royal Blue and Red (wish they’d go back) and I remember when they had a coach who used to get so fired up that he made Mark Few look like an altar boy in comparison (Dan Fitzgerald, RIP, who unfortunately was pushed out acrimoniously due to a funding issue when he was AD).

So, when I say guard Kevin Pangos may be one of the greatest guards, perhaps even the greatest in Gonzaga recent history, I am not shooting this from the hip. This isn’t a knee jerk reaction. I loved Blake Stepp and Derek Raivio. But Pangos may be better than either of them, and this year, statistically he is proving it. He not only could be the reason the Zags win the crown in a suddenly wide-open WCC, but he could be the reason why they stay competitive on the national college basketball scene.

First off, I am only going to compare Pangos to guards who played at Gonzaga from 2003 on. It’s the furthest Ken Pom stats go back. I wish I could go back further, but I don’t have the time, stats or resources to compare guys like Dickau or John Stockton or Matt Santangelo to Pangos (on a knee jerk suspicion, I say Pangos is definitely better than Santangelo, maybe same level as Dickau and slightly worse Stockton; Stockton really didn’t become legendary until he went to the NBA, though he was pretty good at Gonzaga). One of the projects I hope to do is do some historical statistical analysis on some classic WCC teams. I don’t have the time now, but that is something that could happen in the summer, which would make comparisons or posts like these all the more interesting and valuable.

Now, if you have not noticed, statistically, Pangos is having a season that is teetering on legendary when it comes to offensive efficiency. His Adjusted offense according to Ken Pom is 139.2, which is top in the WCC for anyone with at least a 20 percent usage rate. While Gary Bell is close to him at 138.1, Bell’s rating benefits from his extraordinary shooting touch (as he has displayed all three seasons at Gonzaga). But, Bell doesn’t touch Pangos in terms of creating plays for his teammates as well as taking care of the ball. The difference between Bell’s assist and turnover rate is +4.4. Pangos? +12.2, highlighted by a 20.7 assist rate. This isn’t a fluke either, as Pangos’ difference last year was +2.9 while Bell’s was -3.6.

What makes Pangos so great is how he has developed his game since coming to Gonzaga. In high school, Pangos earned a lofty reputation for his ability to shoot from the outside, carry a rather thin team talent-wise and go toe-to-toe with future phenom Andrew Wiggins. If you watch this video, Pangos scored at will against Wiggins’ Vaughn team when Wiggins was a frosh. You can see Wiggins eventually switch to guard Pangos after Pangos starts lighting up the Vaughn squad. But even though Wiggins had obvious physical advantages over the smaller guard, Pangos was still able to make Wiggins and Vaughn pay en route to a game high 48 points.

Pangos has showed a similar ability to drop an obscene amount of points at times. He scored 34 points against Arkansas in the Maui Classic this year, and obliterated a Washington State Cougars team with 27 points as well. But, his game has evolved and that what makes the possibility of Pangos being legendarily great in the Gonzaga lore possible. He has lowered his turnover rate to under 10 percent this year after past rates of 15.7 and 16.5 his sophomore and freshman seasons, respectively. His effective field goal percentage has risen to 60.5 after being 54.9 percent a year ago. He is getting to the line more than a year ago (33.3 free throw rate in comparison to the 26.2 rate last year). And he is doing this with  more minutes than in years past (his 85.2 minutes percentage is a career high so far), and a higher usage rate (21.0 usage rate this year). Some players, who get the uptick in usage and minutes struggle to keep the same efficiency they had when they had the ball less in their hands and when they were on the floor less. Not only has Pangos maintained the same efficiency, but he has actually gotten better, which they needed from him after they lost go-to guy Kelly Olynyk from a year ago.

But when you compare what he’s doing in the lore go Gonzaga history, what Pangos is doing is amazing. Yes, Pangos and Bell could possibly make the best guard-combo Zags fans have ever seen, but what Pangos is doing by himself is pretty darn special. Blake Stepp’s best season in adjusted offense came in 2003-2004, where he posted a rating of 117.1. Derek Raivio’s best season was 122.7 in 2006-2007, but he only posted positive assist to turnover rates only twice in his career (and in his 2006-2007 season, the difference was only +.5). Jeremy Pargo never posted a turnover rate less than 20 percent and consequently his best season efficiency-wise was his senior year when he had a rating of 107.1 (better than his WCC Player of the Year junior season actually). Matt Bouldin’s best year came his junior year when he posted a 119.1 offensive rating, but he also struggled with turnovers over the course of his college career, and he actually regressed in his senior year (his rating fell to 115 his last year). And Steven Gray? After a sophomore campaign when he posted a 120.1 offensive rating, he struggled with more minutes, as he failed to post offensive ratings over 109 in his junior and senior campaigns.

As you can see, there are a lot of names up there, and a lot of quality guards who have had immense impact and success in their tenures with the Zags. And yet, neither of them can touch Pangos’ 139.2 offensive rating, and very few have showed the upward progress Pangos has made from his freshman year to his current state. Pangos came in more as a shooter and he has developed more into an overall player that can step up when needed. He has been overshadowed the past couple of years by upperclassmen and bigger stars, but now that Pangos is asked to shine, he has lived up to the hype and then some. If the Zags want to make the tournament, win another WCC title and perhaps make a run deep in the tourney, then they are going to have to lean on Pangos to make it happen, especially with Sam Dower and Bell’s health an issue at this point.

And you know what? It most likely will happen, because Pangos has been that good this year and stepped up his game that much. Despite the flaws and question marks of this Gonzaga team, Pangos has continued to keep this Gonzaga team humming and currently cemented in its familiar place in the WCC: the top.

Were Gonzaga and St. Mary’s Exposed After Weekend Losses?

Even with the addition of BYU and Pacific, the WCC race within the past decade has come between Gonzaga and St. Mary’s. Mark Few and Randy Bennett have been the staples of coaching success in the WCC, and on a regular basis the two schools have produced their fair share of talent (Adam Morrison, Austin Daye, Kelly Olynyk, Omar Samhan, Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova just to name a few) which has resulted in a slew of victories and NCAA Tournament appearances for both programs.

That being said, both teams came into this season with a lot of question marks. The Zags lost mainstay forward Elias Harris and glue guys Mike Hart and Guy Landry Edi to graduation, and saw Olynyk leave a year early (can’t really blame him) to become a first round draft pick by the Boston Celtics. As for the Gaels, not only did they lose all-conference stud Dellavedova, but they also lost big man Mitchell Young to graduation. While both teams returned a lot of key pieces from their successful 2012-2013 squads, they also lost some key players whose productions would have to be replaced in order to replicate last year’s successes and be competitive not just in the WCC, but at the national level again in 2013-2014.

How have the results been so far? So far good for both squads. Entering Saturday’s game, the Zags came to Wichita with a 10-1 record to face a talented, but inconsistent Kansas State squad. As for the Gaels, they were away for the holidays, traveling to Hawaii to take on South Carolina, another inconsistent squad that was coming off head scratching losses to Manhattan and USC Upstate in consecutive games, in the first round of the Diamond Head Classic (another interesting subplot was if the Gaels took care of business, they could have faced Boises State, who are coached by former Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice).

Contribute it to the travel or Christmas break or whatever, but things did not go as well as planned for both squads. The Zags struggled against an athletic and scrappy Wildcats team, and without the services of big man Sam Dower, who went down in the first half with a hip injury, the Zags’ lack of size was greatly exposed on both ends of the court. As for the Gaels, they were unable to stop the hot-shooting Gamecocks defensively, and they ended up getting surprised by a team that looked to be a bottom feeder for the second straight year in the SEC.

Is this a cause for concern for Gonzaga and St. Mary’s fans? Or is this another case of the “Christmas break letdown” blues? (This has been the case for Gonzaga a lot in the past decade). Let’s take a deeper look into both games:

Gonzaga versus Kansas State (72-64)

For the year, Kansas State has struggled to find offensive consistency for the year. Their adjusted offensive rating according to Ken Pomeroy is 102.2 (roughly 1.02 points per possession), and their effective field goal percentage is 46 percent, 283rd best in the nation. Their inability to find consistent offense explains why they have some letdown losses to teams like Northern Colorado (at home) and Charlotte (neutral court). However, if you want to give credit to second-year coach Bruce Weber (and I don’t like to give him credit for anything the way he drove that Illinois program into the ground), you have to applaud his ability to keep the Wildcats solid as a defensive squad. This year, their 94.3 adjusted defensive rating is 20th best in the nation, and they excel in terms of contesting and forcing bad shots and turnovers, as they are holding teams this year to a 45.1 effective field goal percentage (44th best in the nation) and have a turnovers forced percentage of 21.9 (27th best in the nation). The big story was this: could the sweet-shooting Zags succeed against a K State team that held teams in check on the perimeter and from beyond the arc (the Wildcats are holding teams to a 25.8 percent three point percentage for the year, 4th best in the nation)?

Well, Kansas State succeeded on the defensive end for the most part. Sans the performance of Kevin Pangos (more on him later), Drew Barnham and the limited performance of Sam Dower before he went out with injury, the Zags were immensely poor on the offensive end. While Karnowski shot well from the field (5-of-6), his 0-for-6 performance from the charity stripe hurt the Zags as he finished with an offensive rating of 92 for the game, according to Ken Pom. David Stockton and Kyle Draginis also provide mediocre performances on the offensive end, as they finished with offensive ratings of 92 and 90, respectively. But the worst offender of the game? Gary Bell, who has showed some strong consistency this year in his junior season, posted a rating of 64, as he struggled from beyond the arc, missing some key three point shots down the stretch and finishing 1-of-7 from the field with a mere 3 points. The Zags for the game finished with only 1.03 points per possession, greatly down from their 1.16 season average (which went down from that game, so it was higher but I don’t have the number yet). Kansas State needed to shut down the Zags on the offensive end to have a shot in this game, and when Dower went down, the Zags’s lack of size (minus-2.0 effective height for the year, 299th in the nation, and that is WITH Dower) and presence in the post was greatly exposed and the Wildcats were able to put more pressure on the perimeter with only Karnowski as the legitimate threat in the paint.

However, another story for the game was the Wildcats’ offensive breakout. Kansas State averaged 1.20 points per possession in this game, helped by 52.8 percent shooting on their two point shots (though they continued to struggle from beyond the arc, as they only made 5 out of 18). Furthermore, they were able to out rebound the Zags on the offensive end (10-8 on the offensive glass), get to the free throw line more as well (25 to the Zags’ 15), and they turned the ball over less than the Zags (4-to-12). Considering the Zags lost all four factors of this game, the fact that they only lost by eight is pretty remarkable. Forward Thomas Gipson proved to be the thorn for the Zags individually, as he scored 14 points on 6 of 8 shooting, good for an offensive rating of 163 in only 21 minutes.

So, should Zags fans hit the panic button yet? Well, it all depends on the health of Dower. X-Rays have come back negative on Dower’s hip, but it’ll be interesting to see how he recovers and how this will affect his play for the year. While the Zags have transfer forward Angel Nunez eligible, he did not play in the Wildcats game, and it’ll be interesting to see if he’ll get an increased role with Dower’s health a question over the coming weeks. That being said, I think this was the perfect storm game for the Zags, as the loss of Dower, combined with the rare offensive outburst of the Wildcats put the chips stacked against the Zags from the beginning. As I said before, the fact that they only lost by eight, despite losing all four factors of the game is pretty remarkable. I will say this: Pangos is certainly the backbone of this team, and I think it’s his “WCC Player of the Year” award to lose this year. Despite getting shut out in the first half, Pangos made the necessary adjustments in the second half and finished with 14 points, 6 assists and an offensive rating of 120. Pangos is proving he’s “The Man” on this Gonzaga team, and I think the confidence he got from this game will bode well for the Zags going forward, since they aren’t going to face a lot of teams that are as big a threat defensively as the Wildcats in WCC play.

St. Mary’s vs. South Carolina (78-71)

The big issue with Randy Bennett’s squads in the past is that they have played soft non-conference schedules. This year has been no different, as the Gaels have only played one game away from home (Boise State) and have not played anyone in the Top-50 according to Ken Pom’s ratings. So, while the 9-0 record was nice, many wondered how the Gaels would stack up against the Zags in conference play, since their record was padded by such an easy early schedule.

I expected a letdown of some sort from the Gaels in this tournament, but I did not expect it to come at the hands of South Carolina, a team that was coming off brutal losses to Manhattan and USC Upstate (rated 84th and 154th, respectively by Ken Pom). However, the Gaels, while again efficient on the offensive end (12th in the nation in offensive efficiency), have displayed inconsistency this year on the defensive end, as evidenced by their 101.1 defensive rating, 128th in the nation. The Gaels don’t cause a lot of turnovers (only an 18 percent turnover rate, 208th in the nation) and they don’t get a lot of steals (7.9 steal rate, 252nd in the nation), so they rely on their presence and ability to force bad shots in order to be effective on the defensive side of the ball. It has worked for the most part, as teams are only shooting an effective field goal percentage of 47.1, so when the Gaels are able to settle down defensively in the half court, they do show some ability on the defensive end to prevent points on possessions.

However, for whatever reason, the Gamecocks came lighting it up in Hawaii, as they shot 58.5 percent on their two points shots, and four of seven from beyond the arc. The offensive performance was a surprise for the Gamecocks, as they were shooting a woefully bad 44.9 on their two points shots this year, and post an overall effective field goal percentage of 46.5. And yet, the Gamecocks were able to shot almost 14 percent higher than their season average on two point shots, which lead to them scoring 1.24 points per possession against the Gaels. Surprisingly, the Gaels didn’t slouch on the offensive end, as they averaged 1.13 points per possession thanks to the performances of Stephen Holt, Beau Levesque and James Walker, who posted offensive ratings of 137, 124 and 142, respectively. Waldow also scored a team-high 20 points, though his 112 offensive rating and 28 percent possession percentage made his performance less impressive to the other three.

So where did the Gaels go wrong? While the Gamecocks did get to the line more, they didn’t make it count, as evidenced by their 62.1 percentage from the charity stripe. One of the big factors had to be on the offensive glass, as even though the Gamecocks had less for the game, they had a higher percentage of offensive rebounds (44 percent) to the Gaels (38.2 percent). Add that with a superior shooting day for the Gamecocks, and the Gaels, despite playing effectively on the offensive end, just weren’t able to pull this one off. Guards Sindarious Thornwell and Duane Notice had effective games against the Gaels’ perimeter players, as they scored 13 and 11 points, respectively (good for ratings of 129 and 183). Additionally, they got excellent production off the bench from 6-11 big man Laimonas Chatkevicius (12 points 7 rebounds, 119 rating) and guard Brenton Williams, who hit two key threes in the game. This was a stark contrast to the Gaels, as they got limited production from their bench in this game, as only guard Kerry Carter had much of an impact as a reserve, and even he struggled to get going in this game (91 rating, 5 points).

Much like Kansas State against the Zags, the Gamecocks outplayed their usual output on the offensive end, and that proved to be the Gaels’ undoing, especially since they are not a team that generates a lot of turnovers on the defensive end (they depend more on shutting down opponents and limiting second chance shots). The Gaels are not a very deep team, as they only got 12 minutes this game from their other bench players other than Carter (who had 36), and their bench only has accounted for 24 percent of game minutes for the year, 322nd in the nation. This will be interesting to see come WCC play, for the Gaels could be in trouble if key players get into foul trouble (which they have avoided for the most part this year). One through Five, the Gaels can play with anyone, and their ability on the offensive end is for real as well. But the perimeter depth (though certainly not front court depth) of Gonzaga could pose problems for the Gaels when they face each other in WCC play. That being said, I still believe the Gaels are legitimate contenders in the WCC, even despite the soft non-conference schedule and loss to South Carolina on Sunday.