The Gonzaga Bulldogs have now made the NCAA Tournament 18 straight years. Barring any historic snub, they’ll make it 19 straight years in 2017. This will tie Michigan State for the fifth-best streak regarding consecutive tournament appearances.
All of the teams in the top 5 – Kansas (27 straight years), North Carolina (27), Arizona (25), Duke (21), and Michigan State (19) – have earned multiple titles. That said, how long until Gonzaga finally wins one after so many appearances?
They’ve made it to the Elite Eight twice in their history, including 1999 and 2015. However, most of their appearances have been marked by quick tourney exits. But there may be reason to believe that this is finally the year Mark Few and company run through March Madness.
The obvious is that they’re currently ranked number 1 in the nation with a perfect 28-0 record. They’ve once again dominated the West Coast Conference (16-0), and the Bulldogs need 10 more wins to match the 2014-15 Kentucky squad (38-0) for the best start of all time.
Going deeper than record, this Gonzaga unit is one of the best we’ve seen in terms of defense, ranking eighth in the nation. They also have a deep and talented roster, with seven players averaging between 8.0 and 16.3 points per game. We saw a similarly balanced team win it all last year, with Villanova’s victory over North Carolina.
“Our balance and our defensive are leaps and bounds improved from last year,” said guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who leads the team with 16.3 PPG. “And having guys that can switch multiple positions is huge.”
As for the defense, this is the first time that the squad has ever ranked first during Few’s stint. A big reason why the Bulldogs are so good defensively is their ability to control the paint, with twin 7-footers Zach Collins (1.6 blocks) and Przemek Karnowski (0.9 blocks) doing a sold job inside. Add the perimeter defense of Williams-Goss and Jordan Matthews, and it’s easy to see why this squad is holding opponents to 61.6 points per game.
“Our defensive numbers are as good as they’ve been,” said Few, “and we’ve had some sneaky good defensive teams.”
As the coach of the Zags for the past 18 years, Few also notes that this is the deepest bench he’s had in a while – if not ever.
“This team has balance,” he explained. “We don’t have a [Kyle] Wiltjer that’s looking to get 30 a night. Or even a [Domantas] Sabonis that we’re running everything through every time down the floor.
As Few alluded to, players like Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, Kelly Olynyk, and Adam Morrison have led unbalanced Gonzaga offenses. But the 2017 version doesn’t have one dominant player who scores over 20. Williams-Goss is the closest thing, but he’s more than willing to defer to teammates depending upon the game flow.
“This year we just have a more balanced team,” said Williams-Goss, “and we aren’t just focused in on two guys.”
Besides Williams-Goss’ 16.3 points, other consistent Gonzaga scorers include Karnowski (12.8 PPG), Collins (10.6 PPG), Matthews (10.1 PPG), and Jonathan Williams (9.9 PPG)
Some of the past Zags teams would run into trouble in the tournament when their main option was shut down by opposing defenses. But that won’t be a problem this season, given that the Bulldogs can score from so many different positions.
Beyond this, they have good leadership from Power 5 conferences, including Williams-Goss (Washington), Matthews (California), and Williams (Missouri). Throw in Karnowski, a fifth-year senior who’s already been part of four tournament teams, and you can see where the veteran leadership comes from.
“We’re dialed in every single practice, in the gym,” said Karnowski. “We work together. We work hard. And I think that’s very important. We’re 25-0 now and I see the guys focused in practice like they were in the preseason.”
An undefeated pre-tournament record is well within grasp, but Gonzaga doesn’t seem overly concerned with making history. Instead, they’re mostly concerned with the overall body of work, namely how they do in March Madness.
“The novelty of the undefeated season has kind of worn of and they’re pretty focused on the task at hand. They’ve been pretty good at that all year,” Few stated. “They’re really focused.”
Focus is only one part of NCAA Tournament success, especially given how just one bad shooting night can end your season. But if ever there were a Gonzaga squad that’s prepared for the rigors of the tournament, it’s this rendition, which goes 8-9 deep and can play lock-down defense.
Will this be the Gonzaga team that wins the title? An affirmative yes is never within reach when it comes to March Madness, even for the nation’s No. 1 team. But this could very well be the first Bulldogs team that makes it to the Final Four. And once there, they certainly have the depth and talent to compete for the championship.