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.