Shortly before his team’s visit to Tennessee earlier this month, Gonzaga coach Mark Few gathered his players on the floor of the McCarthey Center and asked them to gaze up at the banners commemorating the program’s conference titles and NCAA tournament bids.
Few then told the Zags they had a chance to accomplish something none of those previous teams had achieved.
With victories over Tennessee and South Dakota in its final two non-league games last week, this year’s Gonzaga team became the first in school history to enter conference play with an undefeated record. The seventh-ranked Zags have stormed to a 12-0 start highlighted by impressive wins over Arizona, Florida, Iowa State, San Diego State and the Vols, all of whom are top 75 teams in the KenPom rankings.
“With all the success we’ve had the past 18 years, it’s getting harder and harder to accomplish something nobody has done before,” Few told Yahoo Sports. “It was nice to be able to put that out there as a goal for them. I think they rallied around that. It was a good way to assure there wasn’t going to be a letdown.”
Gonzaga’s blemish-free non-conference performance puts the Zags in position to take aim at another benchmark they’ve never before met. They have a chance to become the sixth Division I college basketball team since 1976 to complete the regular season without a loss, an exclusive club that includes Indiana State (1979), UNLV (1991), Saint Joseph’s (2004), Wichita State (2014) and Kentucky 2015).
Of college basketball’s five remaining undefeated teams this season, Gonzaga has the most realistic shot at an undefeated regular season because its remaining schedule is the most manageable. Whereas Villanova, Baylor, Creighton and USC will all be tested frequently in their respective leagues, the Zags only play four more games against top 150 KenPom squads, home and road matchups with No. 16 Saint Mary’s and No. 64 BYU.
In Few’s previous 17 years as Gonzaga’s head coach, the Zags have gone undefeated in West Coast Conference play four times — in 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2013. College basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy gives Gonzaga a 7.4 percent chance of doing it a fifth time this year and entering the WCC tournament with a spotless 30-0 record.
To Few, an undefeated WCC season is tougher now because the top of the league is stronger than it used to be. Methodical yet ultra-efficient Saint Mary’s (10-1) returns every key player from last year’s 29-win NIT team. High-speed BYU (9-4) boasts young talent and a formidable home-court advantage. And while the rest of the league isn’t especially good this season, those schools treat their annual home game against Gonzaga like its their Super Bowl.
“If we negotiate our way through the first round of league play unscathed, then you can probably start talking about it as a realistic goal,” Few said. “But this is the first time ever during our entire run that there’s a top 20 team like Saint Mary’s looming there. They had one eight-minute stretch where they didn’t play well (against Texas Arlington) or they would be sitting in the top 10. They’re a legit, legit basketball team that doesn’t make mistakes or beat itself.”
It’s a testament to the strength of his team that Few doesn’t laugh off questions about going undefeated with more than half the schedule remaining. Gonzaga has exceeded even Few’s expectations after losing four starters from last year’s 28-win team including lottery pick Domantas Sabonis, 20-point-a-game scorer Kyle Wiltjer and WCC defensive player of the year Eric McClellan.
With nine newcomers on the roster including three transfers projected to start from the outset, Few was concerned during the offseason that it might take his team awhile to jell on and off the court. As a result, he took his players on a September weekend retreat to the Idaho wilderness, where they had no cell phone service, no TV and no choice but to bond.
“We slept in tents one night and made a campfire,” Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski told Yahoo Sports in October. “I thought it was really cool to see all of our guys talk about stuff that we don’t really talk about on a daily basis. We did some team activities in the woods, and then the next day we went to a lake to hang out and relax. We spent the entire weekend there, and I thought it was a great idea from the coaching staff. We had done stuff like that before but never on such a big scale. With so many new pieces, it was the perfect time to do it.”
Whether that retreat played a role or not, Gonzaga has looked like a team that has played together for years, not weeks. They consistently take high-percentage shots, communicate on defense and make the extra pass, huge reasons that they’re in the top 15 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
“Everyone just assumes we’ll be good year after year, but we looked around at the start of practice and there were so many new guys,” Few said. “Guys that were new to Gonzaga, new to the system, new to each other. It has been impressive how well they’re playing together, how well the ball is moving, how well defensively they cover for each other. Thus far, they deserve a lot of credit.”
The key to Gonzaga’s defensive prowess has been the influx of frontcourt talent. Whereas the Zags last year often had to hide Wiltjer on defense and protect Sabonis from foul trouble, this season Few has the depth to be able to match up conventionally and switch between man-to-man or zone whenever he pleases.
Karnowski’s return from a career-threatening back injury has given Gonzaga a space-eating rim protector who also rebounds effectively and cannot be moved off the block. McDonald’s All-American Zach Collins uses his length and athleticism to defend the rim, while fellow freshman Killian Tillie impacts the game defensively with his energy and motor.
Defensive rebounding has been Gonzaga’s most glaring weakness, but Few is spending time in practice to correct that. He believes the Zags can be competent in that area if they break the habit of watching the ball come off the rim and start pursuing it with more urgency.
Balanced, efficient offense has so far enabled Gonzaga to overcome surrendering an occasional second-chance basket. Junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss leads the Zags at 14.0 points per game, but six other players are averaging between 8.0 and 11.9 points per game, making it tough for opposing defenses to key on any one weapon.
Double-team Karnowski or Collins in the post, and both slick-passing big men will kill you by finding cutters and spot-up shooters. Extend the defense to take away the 3-point line, and Williams-Goss or Josh Perkins will beat you creating off the dribble. Wall off the paint or the driving lanes with a compact zone, and the Zags can make you pay by putting shooters all over the floor and raining down threes.
“If you’re scouting us, it’s probably a tough call on what to do,” Few said. “In the past, teams were like, ‘We’ve got to do everything to try and take Wiltjer away or we’re going to double the heck out of Sabonis.’ Well, this year we’ve got four or five guys who are shooting over 40 percent from three, yet Karnowski’s effective around the basket, Collins is effective around the basket and Johnathan Williams has shown he can be good down there too. So maybe we don’t have a definitive go-to guy, but to me if you’re looking at it from a game plan point of view, it makes it challenging.”
After Gonzaga defeated Tennessee in Nashville 11 days ago, Vols coach Rick Barnes was effusive in his praise. Unprovoked, Barnes called this “as good a team as [Few] has ever had and described Gonzaga as “a team capable of being undefeated heading into postseason play.”
To Few, it’s a little early to broach that subject. Only if Gonzaga makes it through the first half of league play unscathed will Few gather his players on the McCarthey Center floor, point up at the banners once more and note the possibility of reaching another milestone no previous Zags team has hit.
“If we get to that point, I think I’d probably try to use it as motivation,” Few said. “A lot of the games it comes down to being physically and mentally ready. If we’re physically ready and mentally dialed into the game plan, then most of the time we should be fine.”
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