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Comparing Gonzaga's No. 1s: Edge to the '17 team

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With the installation of Gonzaga as the No. 1-ranked team in the country in this week’s polls, I harked back to 2013, and the early-March Monday that the Zags gained that honor for the first time. On the buoyant campus, there was a 21-foot sheet cake with a blue “No. 1” shape, provided by GU’s food-service contractor and free to student passersby to partake (sounds like the same ritual happened this time).

I ran into Drew Barham that day, and the Zag reserve forward had a look on his face perhaps best described as a mixture of pleasure and bemusement at all the attention.

The recollection of Barham, the grad transfer from Memphis, got me thinking this week: How does this Gonzaga team compare to that one?

Barham was an excellent, catch-and-shoot operator who hit 44.4 percent of his threes that season. And he was a quiet, understated, great team guy. But he was limited in speed and quickness, and essentially, a one-trick pony. He averaged eight minutes a game, and would take on a greater role in 2013-14.

Which leads me, a little circuitously, to this conclusion, one you won’t hear uttered from the lips of coach Mark Few anytime soon: The current team is significantly better.

The ’13 outfit, recall, had first-team All-America Kelly Olynyk at center, Elias Harris at forward, and the sophomore guards, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. After some long, mostly early, experimentation with Guy Landry Edi at a small forward, the coaches settled on handyman Mike Hart at the “three” spot, and he ended up starting 20 games.

For depth, that team was relatively close to the ’17 club, although Edi’s role shrank to the point that he averaged only 11 minutes a game. Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski came off the bench, Dower at 16 minutes a game and Karnowski, at 11 minutes, a mere shadow of his ever-more versatile presence today.

David Stockton (19 minutes) was the first guard off the bench, and the best passer, and Kyle Dranginis, a redshirt freshman, contributed 11 minutes a game.

But in just about every metric, the ’17 Zags seem superior, including the eyeball test.

For instance, Dower was the first “big” off the bench. He was an offensive factor, but not a defensive or rebounding force. He averaged only 2.7 boards a game.

Compare that to the first reserve big guy on this team: Zach Collins is the third-leading scorer, and he leads the Zags in rebounding (5.7) and blocked shots (31). The No. 2 big off the bench, Killian Tillie (mending now from an ankle sprain), has made 10 of his 21 threes.

The starting guards, then and now, are probably close to a wash, although keep in mind, Pangos and Bell weren’t halfway through their careers until that season ended. Stockton versus Silas Melson, the first guard subs? Stockton was a better playmaker, but Melson’s athleticism facilitates his role as a solid defender, and in his junior year, he’s contributing more as a shooter (.389 on threes, .871 on free throws) than Stockton did.

Check the team stats: This squad shoots .512 overall and .380 on threes; the numbers were .497 and .371 in ’13. At the foul line, the edge is .744 now to .705 then.

Defensively, the ’17 team surrenders .369 shooting, .290 behind the arc. In ’13, it was .385 and .330.

This team has a slightly better assist-turnover ratio -- 1.54 to 1.35. The only major statistical edge owned by the ’13 team is rebound margin, 7.5 to 6.0, no doubt owing to the current team’s penchant for allowing offensive boards.

But here’s the number that jumps off the page: The 2017 team has 100 blocks, which already tops the 2013 team’s total of 96. Collins, Karnowski and Johnathan Williams III protect the rim, giving Gonzaga an intimidation element that’s rarely been part of the repertoire.

For the analytics geeks, Ken Pomeroy had the '13 team at No. 3 in offensive efficiency and 30th in defense. The latest edition is No. 7 on offense and third on defense.

What’s been happening on the floor reflects all the metrics. While the current team has routinely obliterated WCC opponents, the ’13 club -- while it ran the table in the league -- had some struggles. It beat Santa Clara by seven on the road and Saint Mary’s by five in Spokane. It nosed out a two-point win at San Diego and won by five at BYU.

Nobody in the league has come closer than 15 to this team.

In Collins and Tillie, when he returns, it appears there’s upside with this team. And if Jeremy Jones and Rui Hachimura continue progressing, there could even be more options available.

It’s possible this team could plateau and lose games unexpectedly, and never mind the imponderable of injuries, etc. And now, at No. 1, it gets the best of every opponent and opposing fan (as if it didn't already).

But for now, as February begins, this is the best it’s ever been at Gonzaga.
#wcchoops #zagsmbb #unitedwezag #slipperstillfits #zagup

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Will the cushy WCC schedule hurt Gonzaga?

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Gonzaga got three minutes worth of national advertising Saturday on ESPN’s weekly College GameDay show, as the subject turned to the Zags’ potential shelf life in the NCAA tournament.

“There’s still skepticism,” said host Rece Davis. “There’s always skepticism about Gonzaga.” But he added: “They made good tournament runs the last two years.”

There was no bigger skeptic than Jay Williams, the ESPN analyst. And while his words won’t be popular among Gonzaga fans, his point deserves airing.

“I think they’re legit, but it’s the same old story,” Williams said. “Let me tell you why. I think they have the talent to get to a Final Four. The only thing I worry about, when you coast through the West Coast Conference like they’re going to do, even if you have a hiccup and you lose at Saint Mary’s, I don’t think the team is battle-tested, and I think that could be a major issue when you go into the NCAA tournament.

“I think there’s a lot to be said about a team that’s used to being in those grind-it-out-scenario games. You have experience in those types of adverse moments. You know who your leaders are. You know who the ball’s gonna go to. Those are all gonna be new things when they’re facing adversity in the NCAA tournament.”

Williams could be right. There’s just no way of knowing.

Starting in 2002-03, the Zags began throwing in a mid-to-late season game against a quality opponent. That first came in the old ESPN Bracket Busters event, which Gonzaga quickly decided the program had outgrown, and opted out.

Later came January-February games against Stanford (2006 and 2007) and Memphis (2007-2011). As recently as last year, the Zags, struggling to find a quality win, lost at Southern Methodist.

Perhaps there’s a muscle-memory element to what Williams says. Maybe when you’re locked up against a physical Wisconsin team in the NCAA tournament, something clicks in and you realized you succeeded against a similarly bruising team a month earlier.

But it’s debatable.

I don’t know if Gonzaga failed to get to the Final Four in 2015 because the moment was too big against Duke. More likely, it was because the GU guards, while good, just weren’t quite good enough. Similarly, last year against Syracuse in the Sweet 16, it seemed more a failing of fragility and inexperience in the backcourt that cost Gonzaga down the stretch. And remember, Syracuse’s pressure brought the Orange back from a much bigger deficit against Virginia two days later than it faced against Gonzaga.

Two things: The nature of the tournament -- playing tougher teams as you progress -- seems to argue against Williams. In the early rounds, if you advance, you’re ostensibly playing more and more capable opponents. For those teams that don’t face a rugged league schedule -- and let’s face it, Gonzaga is one of those -- it’s like on-the-job training.

Then there’s this: If Gonzaga was indeed vulnerable because it hasn’t been drop-forged by a heavyweight conference, it would probably have shown up in some immediate, stunning losses. Instead, over the 18-year streak of consecutive NCAA tournaments, GU is 15-3 in first-round games. Moreover, on most of the occasions the Zags have been in tossup first-round games, or close to it, they’ve prospered -- to wit, against Florida State in 2010, St. John’s in 2011, West Virginia in 2012 and Oklahoma State in 2014. The middle two of those were blowouts.

Gonzaga has never suffered the jaw-dropping, can’t-believe-it first-round upset that would support the theory, while a lot of purebred programs have -- Duke, Michigan State, Kansas. That doesn’t debunk Williams’ theory, but surely the first game is where you might find some supporting evidence.

Bottom line: Every theory has some legs, until Gonzaga silences the doubters with a Final Four.
#zagsmbb #slipperstillfits #unitedwezag #zagup

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WCC hoops: The more things change . . .

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As West Coast Conference men’s basketball play begins Thursday night, there’s a sense of newness. That is, right up until you project the best in show in the WCC.

In eight of the past nine years, Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s has always either won the league or finished no worse than a tie for second in the regular season. That’s a trend expected to prevail in 2016-17, as the Zags, now No. 6-rated by the coaches, are the league favorite, while Saint Mary’s (10-1) is No. 19 in both polls.

The league underwent a 40-percent upheaval in head coaches last spring. WCC commissioner Lynn Holzman would tell you that’s reflective of a new wave of presidents unwilling to accept the dominance of Gonzaga, and to a lesser extent, Saint Mary’s.

So veteran Herb Sendek is now installed at Santa Clara. Ex-Saint Mary’s assistant Kyle Smith has taken over at San Francisco. And former NBA point guards Terry Porter and Damon Stoudamire are in place at Portland and Pacific, respectively.

A Cliffs-Notes look at the league as it begins play, alphabetically in order:

Brigham Young (9-4)

Coach -- Dave Rose (12th season as BYU head coach).
Best win -- Beat Colorado 79-71 at Provo.
RPI -- No. 147.
Key stat -- C Eric Mika, returned from a church mission in Italy, leads Cougars with 20.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.

Gonzaga (12-0)

Coach -- Mark Few (18).
Best win -- Beat Arizona, 69-62.
RPI -- No. 6.
Key stat -- Pick one: Zags are No. 2 nationally in 3-point FG defense at .267, they’re shooting .744 on free throws and have a 1.32 assist-turnover ratio.

Loyola Marymount (7-4)

Coach -- Mike Dunlap (3).
Best win -- Won at Colorado State, 69-66.
RPI -- No. 199.
Key stat -- Shooting has been an issue; Lions make .332 from three and 65.8 percent of their free throws.

Pacific (6-7)

Coach -- Damon Stoudamire (1).
Best win -- Beat Wyoming 73-65 in Stockton.
RPI -- No. 246.
Key stat -- Team shoots only 40.4 percent.

Pepperdine (4-8)

Coach -- Marty Wilson (6).
Best win -- Beat Little Rock, 66-65, on neutral floor.
RPI -- No. 256.
Key stat -- Chris Reyes, 6-7 Utah transfer, averages 14.7 ppg, shoots .619 and leads Waves in rebounding at 8.1 a game.

Portland (7-5)

Coach -- Terry Porter (1).
Best win -- Beat Oregon State 53-45, at the Moda Center in Portland.
RPI -- No. 192.
Key stat -- G Alec Wintering’s 21.5 ppg leads four players in double figures.

Saint Mary’s (10-1)

Coach -- Randy Bennett (16).
Best win -- At Dayton, 61-57.
RPI -- No. 30.
Key stat -- Lots to like here: Big man Jock Landale has either led the Gaels in scoring or rebounding in all but one game. SMC has a 1.7 assist-turnover ratio and 9.4 rebound margin.

San Diego (7-5)

Coach -- Lamont Smith (2).
Best win -- Beat Cal-Santa Barbara, 77-68.
RPI -- No. 160.
Key stat -- Spokane University High product Brett Bailey, 6-6, has made quantum leap to lead Toreros in scoring (18.6) and rebounding (7.2).

San Francisco (10-3)

Coach -- Kyle Smith (1).
Best win -- Beat Utah 89-86 in Diamond Head Classic.
RPI -- No. 142.
Key stat -- Dons shooting .484, and .413 behind the arc.

Santa Clara (6-7).

Coach -- Herb Sendek (1).
Best win -- At Valparaiso, 87-80.
RPI -- No. 272.
Key stat -- Broncos have launched 104 more treys than opponents. Foes shoot 40.5 percent on threes.
#wcchoops #zagsmbb #slipperstillfits #zagup #unitedwezag

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How long will this undefeated thing run for the Zags?

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This being sports and all, it’s foolhardy to assume anything and look ahead. Nevertheless, caveats, disclaimers and disavowals in place, there’s this: It might be awhile before Gonzaga loses. In fact, the Zags (11-0) might well be the last team standing nationally without a defeat in 2016-17.

Rick Barnes broached this possibility after the Zags survived his Tennessee team Sunday in Nashville: That they could run the table in the regular season and go into the NCAA tournament unbeaten.

Gulp.

That’s a big leap. Certainly, it’s not an impossible notion, if indeed this is one of Mark Few’s top-shelf Gonzaga teams, and it appears it is. The West Coast Conference schedule isn’t exactly loaded with land mines (although the cliché of every gym lusting for Zag blood will again hold forth.)

So we won’t go there with Barnes. But it isn’t out of the question the Zags, who host South Dakota of the Summit League Wednesday night in their final pre-league game, could soldier well into January -- like right up to Jan. 14, when they host Saint Mary’s -- without a defeat.

To date, five others nationally have spotless resumes -- Villanova, UCLA, Baylor, Creighton and USC.

Gonzaga has obviously surmounted the most imposing hurdles on the non-league schedule, even as a couple of those, like San Diego State and Iowa State, haven’t exactly assembled boffo portfolios.

It would be unwise to attach too much credence to Ratings Percentage Index numbers at this point. But South Dakota is No. 211, and of the first four WCC opponents, the only one with an RPI better than 200 is Portland at 125. Add a grain of salt to all that, since the No. 69-ranked team right now is Indiana and No. 81 is Michigan State. (Gonzaga is No. 8.)

But this is Gonzaga’s longest walk among the undefeateds to start a season since it began playing D-1 basketball in 1958-59. It just might last a good while longer, with all the attendant challenges and pressure.

It's also debatable whether the Gonzaga coaches would even want an extended, long unbeaten run deep into the season, such is the scrutiny it would invite.

Other observations on the state of the Zags, now No. 7-ranked:

-- The inability to simply strangle opponents after holding a big lead should be a concern. It’s happened against Iowa State, Arizona and now Tennessee. While an opening salvo like the 27-6 burst at Tennessee can’t be sustained for a game, too often those comfortable leads have seemingly led to some bad fundamentals, like losing three-point shooters and . . .

-- The defensive-rebounding malaise. What was before a curiosity now seems a problem. A year ago, Gonzaga allowed 10 offensive rebounds a game. In 2016-17, it is surrendering 15. There are times when it looks like GU’s best chance at a defensive board is that the opposing rebounder simply mishandles the ball.

-- Part of those struggles, though, are due to Gonzaga generally playing very good half-court defense, where Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted rankings now put GU at No. 16. Gonzaga is holding opponents to .361 field-goal shooting, markedly better than last year’s number of .396. In other words, there are a lot of rebounds.

-- Turnovers (20) were a problem against Tennessee, where it almost seemed that Gonzaga’s active defensive tempo carried over to the offense, to its detriment. On occasion, the Zags rushed shots or failed to make the extra pass.

-- Its depth continues to be a boon for Gonzaga. Freshman Killian Tillie, who is contributing mightily, is the No. 8 scorer at 4.7 points.

-- It’s been a spotty transition for Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams III. He has struggled with foul trouble, tied for the team lead in whistles, while averaging 9.0 points per game. Improved decision-making and the occasional ball- or shot-fake would flatter his natural athletic ability.

-- A .744 team free throw percentage is a good sign for the Zags. Przemek Karnowski, who has always hovered around 50 percent, is at .621, and surely the coaches would take that all year.

#ZagsMBB #UnitedWeZag #ZagUp #slipperstillfits

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