Could This Be the Best Gonzaga Team We've Ever Seen?
The 2014 UConn Huskies proved in winning the 2014 NCAA Tournament as a 7 seed that having an experienced backcourt often pays dividends from mid-to-late March and early April. Behind a three-headed senior-laden backcourt and a deep nine-man rotation, the Gonzaga Bulldogs (or, as the national media calls them, the Zags) are hoping that this leadership can get them further than any team in Gonzaga's recent past.
The 28-1 Bulldogs (only loss on the season was to Arizona in overtime) are near the top of our power rankings and have the fifth-ranked nERD of 18.42, their highest since 2000, which also corresponds to when Mark Few took the team over and turned them into a national powerhouse. This nERD rating means that, on a neutral court, this 2015 Gonzaga team would beat an average opponent by 18.42 points.
|Year||nERD||NCAA Tournament Result|
|2015||18.42||To be determined|
|2013||17.30||Lost to Wichita St in 2nd Round, 76-70|
|2004||16.81||Lost to Nevada in 2nd Round, 91-72|
|2009||15.86||Lost to North Carolina in Regional Semifinal, 98-77|
|2000||14.09||Lost to Purdue in Regional Semifinal, 75-66|
|2014||13.41||Lost to Arizona in 2nd Round, 84-61|
|2002||12.58||Lost to Wyoming in 1st Round, 73-66|
|2008||12.44||Lost to Davidson in 1st Round, 82-76|
|2005||12.33||Lost to Texas Tech in 2nd Round, 71-69|
|2012||11.67||Lost to Ohio State in 2nd Round, 73-66|
|2011||10.84||Lost to BYU in 2nd Round, 89-67|
|2006||10.75||Lost to UCLA in Regional Semifinal, 73-71|
|2007||10.67||Lost to Indiana in 1st Round, 70-57|
|2003||10.65||Lost to Arizona in 2nd Round, 96-95|
|2001||10.58||Lost to Michigan State in Regional Semifinal, 77-62|
|2010||10.51||Lost to Syracuse in 2nd Round, 87-65|
What's the Secret Sauce?
While Gonzaga is hoping to get a top seed like they did in 2013 when All-American Kelly Olynyk led the team, they're hoping to advance further than their second-round exit that year. Based on having potent teams entering the tourney in the past, it's unclear what the secret sauce to get Gonzaga over the second-round hump is. However, having one of the top-ranked offenses in college basketball has served them well thus far this season.
The Bulldogs currently lead or are near the top of the NCAA in several offensive team categories. Their 52.7% shooting percentage leads the NCAA. In fact, that shooting has led to them leading the nation in offensive efficiency, per our metrics.
The Zags are averaging 78.6 points per game, which is 11th among Division I NCAA teams. They also stroke the three very well, ranking eighth in three-point percentage at 40.8 percent. That type of efficiency should certainly be an asset come March.
There are several players who are responsible for the offensive success Gonzaga is having. For starters, 6'10" forward Kyle Wiltjer, a transfer from Kentucky, is a scoring machine. While he leads the team in scoring, what's more impressive is that he's averaging 25.8 points and 8.6 rebounds per 40 minutes behind a 54.3% (46.9% three-point) field goal percentage.
Wiltjer isn't the only impressive player on the Bulldogs. While they legitimately play a deep nine-man rotation, the backcourt is particularly strong and filled with seniors. Point guard Kevin Pangos is certainly a name you've heard in the past, as is Gary Bell Jr. One you may not know is Byron Wesley, a senior transfer from USC. All three of these players average double digits per 40 minutes, and Pangos' 6.1 assists per 40 minutes shows he's one of the best floor generals in the college game, all while shooting 46.0% from three-point land and over 80% on his free throws.
They Have Size, Too
While Gonzaga has had skilled bigs and a solid point guard in the past, rarely have they had a team this deep and talented with the ability to play physically as well. While Wiltjer grabs the headlines, the team has some talented beef alongside him as well. Junior center Przemek Karnowski (7'1", 288 pounds) is averaging 10.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game (17.1 and 9.7 per 40 minutes), and 6'10" freshman forward Domantas Sabonis is averaging 9.6 points and 6.9 rebounds per game (17.8 points and 12.8 per 40 minutes). While this skilled height has primarily helped on the offensive end, Gonzaga has the most defensive rebounds in the country as well.
Gonzaga isn't necessarily thought of as a defensive-minded team, but they do rank 34th in scoring defense, allowing 60.6 points per game. And they rank in the 92nd to 93rd percentile according to our metrics. This may be a new found strength come March.
What may be Gonzaga's biggest hurdle in getting a 1 seed and succeeding in the NCAA Tournament is their strength of schedule. According to our numbers, the Bulldogs have faced the 78th-best schedule this season, which compares unfavorably to other teams chasing a top seed.
One could argue that the Bulldogs have seven quality wins, including victories over Southern Methodist, UCLA, St. John's, Memphis, St. Mary's (twice), and BYU, but they don't play in a strong conference.
With two home games remaining (San Diego and BYU) and the West Coast Conference Tournament, Gonzaga, at worst, figures to enter the NCAA Tournament with two losses, which should keep them out West as a 1 or 2 seed in the opening rounds. The potential venues they'd be playing at include Seattle and Portland, two places where the Bulldogs have loyal followings which potentially could help them overcome their recent second round struggles.
As it stands, we have them as a 2 seed.
While they may not get a top seed, this Gonzaga team, based on our advanced metrics, doesn't seem to be of the "lose in the second round" variety. Between three solid senior guards, a dominant go-to scorer in Wiltjer and a big and talented frontcourt, these Bulldogs are incredibly efficient on offense and better than most think on defense. Their top-ranked shooting and senior leadership could take them deep into the NCAA Tournament this year.