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?
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.
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.
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.