LOS ANGELES – The biggest question facing every Gonzaga team since Mark Few took over in 1999 is the same: Can the Bulldogs win in March?
Sure, Gonzaga dominates the West Coast Conference year after year – Gonzaga has never finished below second in the standings – and has won at least 25 games every year for the last decade, but that regular season magic always seems to wear off during the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga has never advanced past the Elite Eight, and have only done that once in the last 17 seasons.
But this 2016-17 squad might be different.
Why? A couple of reasons: The top-ranked Bulldogs are defensively sound, ranking eighth in Division-I basketball. They’re deep, with six players averaging over nine points a game. And they’re mature, with three transfers from Power-5 conferences and a veteran big man to boot.
“Our balance and our defensive are leaps and bounds improved from last year,” guard Nigel Williams-Goss said. “And having guys that can switch multiple positions is huge.”
No Bulldog team had ever ranked inside the top-30 defensively during Few’s tenure, but with the burly senior center Przemek Karnowski patrolling the paint and transfer guards Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews holding down the top of the key, Gonzaga has held opponents to a meager 61.6 points per game.
“Our defensive numbers are as good as they’ve been,” head coach Mark Few said, “and we’ve had some sneaky good defensive teams.”
Gonzaga’s team is also the deepest in years, something both Few and Williams-Goss mentioned profusely as one of the reasons this team is so different from its predecessors.
“This team has balance,” Few said. “We don’t have a [Kyle] Wiltjer that’s looking to get 30 a night. Or even a [Domantas] Sabonis that we’re running everything through every time down the floor.
“We can share it. I feel comfortable we have eight guys who can get to double figures if needed.”
In years past, Gonzaga was dominated by players like Wiltjer and Sabonis, who looked to score on every possession the past two years. Even Kelly Olynyk in 2013 and Adam Morrison in 2006 were focal points of the Bulldogs’ offense.
But this Gonzaga team doesn’t feature any superstars. While Williams-Goss, a transfer from Washington, could be deemed the star of the squad, he seems just as comfortable putting up 33 points in one game as he is with not.
“This year we just have a more balanced team,” Williams-Goss said, “and we aren’t just focused in on two guys.”
Williams-Goss averages a team-high 15-8 points per game but Karnowski (12.1 ppg), Jordan Mathews (10.6 ppg), Johnathan Williams (9.8 ppg) and Josh Perkins (9.1 ppg) are big contributors. And even freshman big men Zach Collins (10.8 ppg) and Killian Tillie (5.1 ppg) make their presence known.
The most important difference isn’t even in the numbers for Gonzaga: it’s in the huddle and on the sideline. It’s a mature leadership. From within the program and from outside.
Gonzaga’s three transfers – Williams-Goss, Mathews and Williams – hail from Washington, California and Missouri, respectively, while Karnowski is a fifth year season who’s seen four NCAA Tournament runs.
That veteran leadership rubs off on the rest of the team, Karnowski said, and he’s seen all throughout the season.
“We’re dialed in every single practice, in the gym,” he said. “We work together. We work hard. And I think that’s very important. We’re 25-0 now and I see the guys focused in practice like they were in the preseason.”
The Bulldogs don’t even seem phased by the concept of going undefeated this season, Few said. In fact, they almost seem annoyed by it.
“The novelty of the undefeated season has kind of worn of and they’re pretty focused on the task at hand. They’ve been pretty good at that all year,” Few said. “They’re really focused.”
It will take more than just focus to win in March. Hell, it’ll take more than focus to just beat conference rival Saint Mary’s, who the Bulldogs play on Feb. 11 in Moraga, California.
But between the maturity, the depth and the defensive, the pieces just might be in place for a deeper run than many expected from the small school from Spokane.