For better and worse, consistency explains Mark Few’s tenure at Gonzaga.
Over the past 16 seasons, Few has amassed 427 wins, 15 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, 13 conference regular season titles and 11 conference tournament championships … with zero national championships, zero Final Fours and zero Elite Eight appearances.
The model of consistency, for better or worse.
It seems that each season the debate begins again. Is this Mark Few’s best Gonzaga team? Is this the year Gonzaga finally makes it to the Elite Eight … or Final Four?
Yes, this is Few’s best Gonzaga team, and this is the Gonzaga team that can keep the Madness rolling to Indianapolis. This team is different. This team has star power. This team has depth in the frontcourt and weapons in the backcourt. This team has a great coach. And this team plays exceptional, tougher defense.
This Gonzaga team can break the mold and go to the Final Four. Here are the reasons why:
1. Kevin Pangos
A great college point guard must not only be able to score, but create for his teammates and set the tone defensively. Kevin Pangos does all of that, and then some.
According to KenPom, Pangos is the country’s third-most offensively efficient player (137.8), he’s 11th in true shooting percentage (67.5) and 26th in effective field goal percentage (63.4). But it isn't just Pangos' ability to score, especially from deep, that makes him arguably the nation’s best point guard. His ability to set the tone for the Bulldogs’ second-most efficient offense in the country is nothing short of fantastic, averaging nearly five assists to one turnover per game, and increasing his assist rate to 23.8 from 18.3 in 2014. Pangos’ development over the past four years has been a model in which to build a superstar point guard.
From his junior season to senior season, Pangos has improved his field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and assist rate while lowering his turnover rate. If the Zags want to crack the Sweet 16 code, Pangos’ formula of sharp shooting and offensive productivity could be the solution.
2. Backcourt Depth
The Bulldogs didn’t become the nation’s second-most efficient offense and the WCC’s best defense with just Pangos. No, it takes a team — and this team is loaded.
Gonzaga’s backcourt includes Byron Wesley, a senior swingman and graduate transfer from USC. Wesley is a reliable third option who hits 50 percent from the floor, averaging 11 points, five rebounds and three assists in 27 minutes per game. The Zags also feature another reliable shooting senior to complement Pangos, Gary Bell Jr., who chips in eight points per game to go along with a 40 percent 3-point shooting percentage.
3. Frontcourt Options and Weapons
The Gonzaga frontcourt gives opposing defenses headaches, and not just in the paint. Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer has been a revelation for Gonzaga and is the definition of a stretch four. In his first season in Spokane, Wiltjer has opened up Mark Few’s offense to new levels, posting a 16.4 points per game average while shooting better than 54 percent from the field, 44 percent from deep, 80 percent from the line, all while ranking eighth nationally in offensive efficiency rating (103.2).
Wiltjer has help from his post-up brethren. Seven-foot-one Prezemek Karnowski fits his role perfectly in the Zags high scoring offense. The Polish import scores almost 11 points per game with six rebounds, all while shooting 62 percent from the floor.
The son of former NBA center Arvydas Sabonis, freshman big man Domantas Sabonis has basketball in his genes. The 6-10 forward from Portland has played noticeably well for an 18 year old. Sabonis averages 10 points and seven rebounds off the bench for the Zags, complemented by his 70 percent field goal percentage and high offensive rebounding rate. Sabonis may be a role player on this Zags team, but he has the ability to go off, like he did against Pepperdine when he was 9-of-9 from the floor with 18 points and 12 rebounds, in a two-point win over the Waves on Jan. 15.
4. Defense Wins Championships
We can talk ad nauseam about the Zags’ prolific offensive attack, but as the old adage declares, defense wins championships. Gonzaga has kept teams under 60 points 13 times this season and allows rival offenses just 60.7 points per contest, best in the WCC and 33rd nationally. Efficiency wise, the Bulldogs are a top-tier team. According to KenPom’s defensive efficiency rating, the Zags rank first in the WCC (95.4) and 27th nationally (92.7).
A significant reason Gonzaga excels defensively is their ability to rebound. Gonzaga is first in its conference in preventing second-chance rebounds for opposing offenses and rank second behind BYU in total rebounds, defensive rebounds and rebound rate in the WCC. The Bulldogs get rebounding from all over the court, with four players averaging at least five boards per game. It’s hard to beat a team that doesn’t allow extra possessions for their opponents.
Gonzaga’s offensive arsenal headlined by Pangos and Wiltjer, accompanied by Sabonis, Bell, Wesley and Karnowski gives Few his best team since he has been in Spokane. With a lockdown defense and a little March magic, this could be the Zags team that breaks the spell and stays out after midnight, dancing in the glow of the downtown Indianapolis lights this April.
-By Jake Rose