By Josh Stonberg
Wake up America! Gonzaga is for real!
The last two editions of our most beloved sporting event, March Madness, have featured a No. 1 seed hailing from a non-major conference. Could this trend continue for a third straight year? The Gonzaga Bulldogs, hailing from the West Coast Conference, are making a strong case for why they deserve a No. 1 seed this March.
Gonzaga is the closest thing to a mid-major powerhouse in college basketball, having achieved a No. 4 seed or higher in five of the last eleven NCAA tournaments — including a No. 1 seed two seasons ago. However, this year’s group might be the best team Gonzaga has ever had, and they can only fly under the radar for so long. Only two teams sit above Gonzaga in this week’s AP top 25: Virginia and Kentucky. Duke, Louisville and Wisconsin all sit close behind Gonzaga for the top spot of the non-undefeated teams. All five of these teams have struggled mightily over the past week or two. Kentucky has come out flat in back to back games
(going to overtime twice against unranked teams), while Virginia barely escaped a double overtime thriller against Miami. Duke dropped its first game of the season to North Carolina State, then stumbled again, this time at home, against Miami, Wisconsin fell to unranked Rutgers, and Louisville (Welcome to the ACC, Cardinals) dropped a conference matchup against a talented UNC team. It is far from a stretch to consider Gonzaga to be better than all these other highly ranked teams, who have been receiving much more national attention than has Gonzaga. Call me crazy, but after you do so, take a look at the stats with me.
Gonzaga is a machine offensively. Their 52.8% field goal shooting trails only Notre Dame’s. Duke, at No. 3, is not far behind, but to find Virginia on the list of top shooting percentages, one would have to look all the way down to the 25th team in the rankings. Kentucky ranks a miserable 84th, shooting only 45.4%. This number is lower than the shooting percentage of such lowly teams as Tulane, Colgate, Citadel, Portland and Lamar. Gonzaga also shoots the three pointer at a high clip; their 39.9% shooting percentage from deep ranks 14th in the country. In comparison, Virginia ranks 33rd, Duke ranks 34th and Kentucky ranks 179th — over 100 spots lower than their in-state not-so-much rivals, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. Yes, you read that correctly. Gonzaga’s high numbers can be traced back to the unselfish team basketball they play. Their 296 assists rank 4th in the country, and are the most of any ranked team. Kentucky ranks 39th in assists (about time the No. 1 team in the country was not last), Duke 63rd, and Virginia 129th — having the same amount of assists as Sacramento State. Now you might be sitting here reading all these stats and thinking they are irrelevant; a good offense does not necessarily need to shoot the ball well or assist every basket they score. If this is your thought process, and I have still yet to convince you that Gonzaga is offensively superior to all the other highly ranked teams, then consider this: Gonzaga has scored 1405 points, giving them the 3rd most in the country. Duke ranks only 62nd, Kentucky 85th, and Virginia a putrid 168th.
It is clear Gonzaga is loaded on offense, but do they have the star power to lead them to an NCAA title? Many recent champions have been carried by one or two stars on their run to a championship, and I do not see this trend stopping this year. Last year’s champion, UConn, was propelled by Shabazz Napier’s superb play. The previous year’s final featured a Louisville team, powered by a backcourt of Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, defeating a Trey Burke led Michigan team. Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos could be the next guard to lead his team to glory. His true shooting percentage ranks seventh in the country. The six players ranked higher than him all play for teams that have no business being discussed in an article about the best team in the country. In terms of offensive rating, Pangos ranks first overall. His 2.6 offensive win shares the fifth rank in the country, and his 3.7 overall win shares place him at eighth in the country. To give some more basic statistics, Pangos is scoring 12.5 points per game on 50.8% field goal shooting, 87.8% free throw shooting and a phenomenal 48.1% from three point land. He also posts a 3.8 assist to turnover ratio and leads his team in steals. Simply put, Pangos must be in the discussion for the best offensive player in the country, if not the best player overall. It also does not hurt his play to have a big man who can carry the team on his back for portions of the game. Forward Kyle Wiltjer, a transfer from Kentucky, posts a not-too-shabby offensive rating of 131.4, good for 19th in the country. His player efficiency rating also ranks 19th in the country, and his offensive win shares place him at 17th in the country. Taking into account both sides of the ball, his win shares per 40 minutes rank tenth in division one. He paces the team in scoring with 16.4 points per games, while shooting a healthy 53.4% from the field and 43.5% from deep. His celebration game also happens to be phenomenal. On January 14, Pangos and Wiltjer were placed on the mid-season Wooden Award watch list, featuring the top 25 players in the country up to this point. It is hard to find a better one-two punch than the one the Bulldogs have in their two superstars.
Along with college studs Pangos and Wiltjer is future NBA center Domantas Sabonis. Since opening the season with 14 points and 8 rebounds in only 20 minutes of action, it has been clear that he will be an integral part of this Bulldogs roster come March. The son of Lithuanian legend Arvydas Sabonis (who, at 7 feet 3 inches, is one of the most physically imposing men to ever play basketball), Domantas is already predicted to be a lottery pick in the 2016 draft (next year) despite only having half a season of college basketball under his belt. Currently he averages 9.5 points per game on 70.5% shooting to go along with 5.8 rebounds in a mere 20.4 minutes per game. With his playing time set to increase (he played 24 and 25 minutes in their last two games) the lanky Lithuanian seems set to rise to national prominence come March.
Now comes the incredibly overused argument applied to any team outside the power five conferences: their strength of schedule is lacking. Well, No. 22 SMU failed to provide much of a challenge for the Bulldogs. Pangos drained five three pointers en route to a 17 point performance, to go along with five rebounds, seven assists and three steals. As far as the team’s performance, a 72-56 beatdown of a top 25 team is quite impressive. Gonzaga’s only loss this season came on the road at No. 3 Arizona. And while this is a loss, it is hardly a serious blemish on their otherwise impressive resume. With no games left against ranked teams, Gonzaga should have a relatively easy time the rest of the way, and should not lose more than one or two games in conference play. If Gonzaga can continue their prolific offensive play throughout the season, Kentucky, Duke and the rest of the 68 team field better be wary of Kevin Pangos, Kyle Wiltjer and co., as they seemed primed for a championship run come March.