Last week’s Associated Press NCAA men’s college basketball poll ranked Gonzaga University as the No.1 team in the nation. Yet, despite being the only undefeated team in the Top 25, Gonzaga did not receive the entirety of the first-place votes. Inexplicably, the writers were split between Gonzaga, Baylor, Kansas and Villanova.
Kansas and Villanova were both two-loss teams at the time, while Baylor had just one loss. The writers who voted for Baylor and Kansas are probably feeling a little silly at this point; Baylor has lost twice and Kansas once in the past week. As for the writers who voted for Villanova over Gonzaga, one of the Wildcats’ losses was against unranked Marquette — a decent team overall and a game on the road, but still. Do not get me wrong: The Big East is a brutally hard conference to play in, especially this year. But it makes no sense to have any discussion about Villanova being ranked above Gonzaga, and to argue otherwise is plain-and-simple East Coast bias.
The reason that writers are so hesitant to grant the Zags the respect they deserve is due to the weakness of the conference they play in: the West Coast Conference. The WCC has just one other ranked team — the No. 20 St. Mary’s Gaels — with no other teams receiving votes for an AP ranking.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few knew this coming into the season, however, and scheduled non-conference games against Iowa State, No. 9 Arizona, Washington, No. 17 Florida, Tennessee and San Diego State. While three of those — Washington, Tennessee and SDSU — have had disappointing seasons thus far, road wins against Iowa State and Florida are nothing to sneeze at. Even more impressive is its Dec. 3 victory against Arizona, a team now ranked fifth in the country, with only one loss besides the Gonzaga contest.
Interestingly, all three of those signature non-conference wins have taken place on neutral courts, with the Florida and ISU games coming at the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando, which may as well have been a home game for Florida. The Arizona game was played at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, a truly neutral location. It seems that Few is preparing his team for the NCAA tournament atmosphere by reaching outside his own conference for tournament-like games.
Although TV commentators often criticize the Bulldogs for early tournament exits, Gonzaga has performed admirably the past two years. In 2015, the Zags reached the Elite Eight and in 2016, the Sweet Sixteen. Those teams were good, but not as good as this year’s squad.
Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga’s leading scorer, probably will not win the Wooden Award. He does not play like Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz or Dillon Brooks. He’s not flashy. Instead, he has the mature savvy to make the right decision with the ball nearly every time.
The Washington transfer’s patience, body control and quick first step allows him to frustrate defenders and put up big numbers in the scoring column. And by keeping his head up he is able to find big man Przemek Karnowski for mid-range jumpers or easy lay-ins on the block.
Karnowski, a 7-foot-1, 300-pound giant, complements his huge frame with surprising agility and excellent hands — not to mention a nice little jump shot he has developed late in his college career. Karnowski is complemented on the inside by another 7-foot freshman Zach Collins, who averages double-digit scoring and is the third-leading scorer on the team.
These two, who both shoot over 60 percent from the floor, collapse defenses and allow plenty of room for shooters like Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews, Johnathan Williams and Josh Perkins. The Zags also receive quality minutes from bench players such as Silas Melson and Killian Tillie. All in all, they run eight-deep, each one a scoring threat and a solid defender.
With Few’s reputable in-game coaching skills, Gonzaga has very few weaknesses. In fact, the undefeated Bulldogs have a real shot at going undefeated on the season, a feat rarely accomplished in the college game.
If Gonzaga is able to run the table, Few will join prestigious company, among the likes of John Wooden, Bob Knight and John Calipari. But they are not there quite yet. As Wooden himself said, “It’s not so important who starts the game, but who finishes it.”
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