When Kris Bryant’s throw popped the mitt of Anthony Rizzo in Cleveland last November, the Chicago Cubs’ 108-year championship drought mercifully ended. For loyal families who waited generations for that moment, anxiety instantly gave way to an intoxicating euphoria.
What a magical run.
Five months later, Gonzaga is college basketball’s equivalent of the triumphant 2016 Cubs, a team everyone doubts because of history, but will finally deliver.
Ok, Northwestern counts too.
Since making its first memorable mark on the hoops scene in 1999, the small Jesuit school in Spokane has evolved from pushover to powerhouse. At first under Dan Monson and for the last 18 seasons, Mark Few, it has averaged 27.7 wins per year during that stretch, nearly matching the production of traditional bluebloods Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina.
Though Gonzaga has achieved an incredible level of success and turned several players into household names – Dan Dickau, Adam Morrison, Ronny Turiaf, Blake Steppe, Kelly Olynyk, Domantas Sabonis and others recall fond memories – the annual postseason “dark horse” suffered many unexpected early exits. Over its stretch of 18-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, it never blazed a trail to the Final Four and fell before the Round of 16 an astonishing 11 times, leaving many bandwagoners feeling acrimonious.
The Bulldogs’ second-round elimination by Wichita St. in 2013 was the pinnacle of their disappointment. That year they steamrolled unblemished through conference play, entered the Dance atop the AP and Coaches ranks and were awarded their first ever No. 1 seed. The parallels to this season are eerily similar.
Throw in the typical “not battle-tested” cries due to the generally weak nature of the West Coast Conference outside St. Mary’s and therein lies the foundation for why many bracketologists, both amateur and expert, will select another school in their Pick ‘em pools.
However, follow the herd this year and you’ll sorely regret it.
Scribble it in permanent ink; this is Gonzaga’s year.
Here are five reasons why the Bulldogs will finally live up to the promise and carve out a coveted spot in the Final Four:
Balance. According to KenPom.com, Gonzaga is one of a few of teams since 2010 to rank inside the top-10 nationally in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Other members of that group – 2010 Duke, 2012 Ohio St., 2015 Kentucky and 2016 Villanova – either attended the Final Four or won a national championship. Consistency on both ends is paramount for any team to make a deep run. The ‘Zags undoubtedly have it.
Frontcourt depth. Unlike previous iterations, this year’s Bulldogs can overcome whistles. Shem Karnowski is their primary post option, but it to doesn’t end with the ‘Polish Shaq.’ Freshmen towers Zach Collins and Killian Tillie have contributed meaningful minutes, averaging a combined 14.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. Underrated power forward Jonathan Williams provides another layer. He’s athletic, extremely active around the basket and can knock down the occasional jumper. And don’t label Karnowski some lane-clogging oaf. For a dude listed at 7-foot-1, 300-pounds, his touch, defensive awareness and passing skills are sensational. If the opposition doesn’t possess bulk to match, Gonzaga’s size simply wears you down.
Veteran guards. No one has mentioned Nigel Williams-Goss in the same breath as Wooden Award candidates Frank Mason, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart or Caleb Swanigan, but he deserves consideration. The Washington transfer is the fifth-most efficient player, regardless of position, per KenPom. He explodes off the dribble, nets 37 percent from downtown, distributes the rock crisply and is a menace at the free throw line (91.3 FT%). Throw in sharpshooter Jordan Matthews and experienced ball handlers Josh Perkins and Silas Melson and the ‘Zags showcase arguably the best backcourt in the nation. As most would agree, guard play is paramount in a single-elimination format. In that category, Gonzaga boasts an embarrassment of riches.
Killer instinct. Including their marquee triumphs over Florida, Arizona and Iowa St. in non-conference play, the ‘Zags largely pancaked the competition. The WCC’s meek posed no match, even St. Mary’s, a team that was fixed inside the AP top-25 for much of the season. Gonzaga’s 23.1 average scoring margin was tops in all of college basketball, and it wasn’t close. Wichita St. ranked second with 19.6. Deride it all you want for playing the Pacifics of the world, but it’s hard to dispute its foot-to-throat mentality. Like a zombie horde, the Bulldogs are relentlessly bloodthirsty.
Decreased pressure. Most immediately wrote off the ‘Zags after their shocking home defeat to BYU, on senior night no less. But the misstep was a blessing in disguise. Historically, coaches placed in similar situations said losing before the NCAA Tournament was beneficial (e.g. Bruce Weber with Illinois in 2005). No longer shouldering the burden of chasing perfection and the ’76 Indiana Hoosiers, the setback allowed Few’s bunch, who the coach admitted after the loss was at times playing too loose, to jerk the reins and refocus. As the old adage sats, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” In the case of the Bulldogs, the lingering bitterness will only further motivate them to silence doubters.
As the No. 1 seed in the West, Gonzaga is sure to have friendly crowds in the stands. A number of potential pitfalls await – Arizona and Notre Dame would present challenges – but its few weaknesses and general fortitude arrow to it to finally getting over the Final Four hump and likely a national title.
Here are four additional underdogs (No. 5 seeds or lower) from each region that could channel Cinderella:
Michigan Wolverines 24-11, No. 7 seed, Midwest region) – The Wolverines are much like their Marvel namesake, a team with superior healing power and superhuman abilities. Thus far the story of March, Michigan, after a harrowing plane crash, improbably rolled through the Big Ten Tournament untouched, practice apparel and all. With its temperature soaring, to call it “dangerous” would be a terrible understatement. Derrick Walton Jr., who dropped 16 dimes in Michigan’s final regular season game at Nebraska, has rocketed his game to the stratosphere. His impeccable court vision, off-dribble abilities and scoring prowess both inside and out labels him a complete point guard. Match him with versatile weapons Mo Wagner, D.J. Wilson, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Duncan Robinson and a suddenly scorching Zak Irvin and the Wolverines, who space the floor beautifully, present many matchup problems. If they continue to tickle the twine from outside (38.1 3PT%) and exhibit the same staunch defense it exuded in the Big Ten prelude (1.00 points per possession allowed), they will represent the Midwest in the Final Four. And, no, I don’t own any Chris Weber throwback jerseys.
Wichita St. Shockers (30-4, No. 10 seed, South region) – Back in the underrated role, the most controversial school pre-tourney earned a surprising No. 10 seed from the Selection Committee, a slotting that surely had folks in Lexington audibly gasp. This is the deepest Shockers team in recent memory. Yes, it’s better than the Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet teams many fondly recall. Gregg Marshall’s crew are wonderfully balanced. On the offensive side, Wichita performs at a high level. It nets 1.19 points per possession (No. 12 nationally), drains 40.7 percent from downtown, generates plentiful second-chance opportunities, swings the ball effectively and rarely shoots itself in the foot. On the opposite end, the Shockers are equally impactful. They rank inside the top-20 overall in five different categories, including points per possession allowed and three-point percentage D. Its interior beef – Shaq Morris, Darral Willis, Markis McDuffie and Rashard Kelly list at 6-foot-7 plus – and long-distance accuracy – Larry Shamet and Connor Frankamp shoot a combined 45 percent beyond the arc – are very impressive. Yes, Wichita’s level of competition was suboptimal, but it bludgeoned opponents, leading the nation in average margin of victory. A 7/10-game winner has marched onto the second round 19 of the last 20 years. This season, the Missouri Valley rep is slated to deliver the Shocker special.
Bucknell Bison (26-8, No. 13 seed, West region) – In a largely chalk region it’s important to remember to fear the Buck. Though it played mostly bland competition in the Patriot, it undercut Vanderbilt in non-conference play and honed its craft in league action. The Bison aren’t as experienced as many veteran-laden mid-major clubs, but they are equipped to compete against high-major competition. They splash nearly 38 percent from three, convert close to 55 percent inside the arc and concede only 1.00 point per possession on defense. Specifically, Nana Foulland, the Patriot League Player of the Year, excels at a high level offensively, tallying nearly 63 percent from the field. His back-to-the-basket game and firmness inside the paint defensively are tough to manage. Rebounding isn’t Bucknell’s strongest attribute, but it’s an assertive team on both ends capable of competing with teams with greater accolades. West Virginia, its opening round opponent, presents a unique matchup. The Mountaineers’ press defense typically coaxes mistakes, but the grit, balance and improved ball-security of Bucknell could turn a Stephen F. Austin trick. Recall the Lumberjacks bounced West Virginia in Round 1 last year. If Zach Thomas, Stephen Brown and Kimbal Mackenzie – they collectively shoot over 40 percent from three – uncork outside, the Mountaineers will experience deja vu.
UNC-Wilmington Seahawks (29-5, No. 12 seed, East region) – Hundred dollar bills in Vegas, Mr. 4.22 John Ross, your run-of-the-mill cheetah and UNC-Wilmington … What do they all have in common? They all move insanely fast. Speed is the name of the game for the Colonial rep. It pushes the gas to exhaust opponents and take advantage of its bevy of efficient scorers. As a unit, the Seahawks rip the cords at an average rate of 1.18 points per possession, top-20 nationally in the category. Though 34.5 percent of their production comes from distance, the presence of Devontae Cacok inside strikes a balance. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound center is the country’s most proficient scorer, tallying a nutty 78.9 effective field-goal percentage. Flanked by sharpshooters Ambrose Mosley, C.J. Bryce, Denzel Ingram and Chris Flemmings, Cacok and friends are a Gatling gun personified. They simply fire one shot after another with remarkable accuracy. Equally important, they play controlled surrendering the fewest turnovers of any Division I team. Defense, though, is no doubt their Achilles heel. They rank north of No. 185 in four different categories. However, because of their ability to apply pressure (20.4 TO%), their defense often leads to easy buckets. Depth is a major problem, but if the ‘Hawks fly high outside, they will be this year’s classic No. 12 over No. 5 darling. Apologies, Virginia fans.
Fun facts/trends about the Big Dance:
• At least one No. 12 seed has advanced beyond the opening round 14 of the past 17 years. In the second round No. 12s are 20-27 (42.5%) all-time. On a related note, No. 11s and No. 12s have won the exact number of opening round games (34.9%) since 1985.
• A No. 16 has never defeated a No. 1, though Alonzo Mourning still wakes up in cold sweats about Princeton.
• Since 2000, No. 13 seeds have survived the opening round in just 20.3 percent of its attempts; No. 14s 16.4 percent.
• No. 15 seeds are 8-120 all-time, though last season Middle Tennessee St. stunned Michigan St. in Round 1.
• First Four winners have had considerable success. In the six years of their existence, one has reached the Round of 32 every year, including Wichita St. in 2016. Three of those six years one marched onto the Sweet Sixteen.
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