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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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