By Manny Nunez
Many teams have changed the aspect that there is not a plethora of depth in college hoops on the west coast over the course of the last few months. UCLA has garnered a lot of that glory with recruiting Lonzo Ball, thus changing the culture of Bruins basketball. USC has held their ground and hovered around the top 25 again this year, and they are more than likely a prime candidate for a strong seed in the NCAA tournament. Then, the Oregon Ducks and Arizona Wildcats have lived up to top 10 billings as well.
Each of these teams, however, have at least two losses to their name. Only one team, heading into mid-February has a perfect record, and thus currently own the number one ranking in both the AP and Coaches poll – the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Gonzaga has always been a team to talk about since their Cinderella run way back in 1999. After Mark Few took over the program they have made the NCAA tournament in any instance (conference winners or at-large). Their talent and commitment from its players to stick around as long as they can have built and kept this program as strong as ever.
However, their consistency in the regular season does not really translate to success in the Big Dance.
The Zags have advanced to the Sweet 16 six times in the Mark Few era with one Elite 8 appearance. With all the players that have worn a Bulldogs jersey (Adam Morrison and Ronny Turiaf to name a few), all that high end talent that they have recruited has yet to translate a Final Four appearance.
This year has a much different feel. The last time they held a number one ranking in 2013, many critics did feel as if they weren’t as deserving as other schools. Their prediction came true when they were just seconds away from being the first team to lose as a number one seed in the first round to Southern. They were eventually ousted that year against Wichita State. Senior Przemek Karnowski was around then, and this season even he sees how much different things are.
“Our coaches have always preached to us to prepare for our games like it is our last,” Karnowski said. “Our game plans so far have been wonderful. It is awesome for all of us to rotate in and out whenever we are all needed. Not one guy on the team is looking for stardom. We have been working together with trying to click with our defensive switches and moving the ball around.”
It has been much more than Karnowski. While their overall schedule has been favorably weak (88th overall), and with two top 25 wins (Arizona and St. Mary’s), no team in the West Coast Conference have really come close to competing with them, including the Gaels. Offensively they have spread the wealth, led by Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Williams. They have a good supporting cast with Zach Collins coming off the bench and averaging in double figures. While they are the top scoring team in the conference, only Williams-Goss is in the top 10 in scoring within the conference.
Defensively, they are the top team in spreading the ball, allowing the lowest field goal percentage, and winning the turnover battle. All this translate in big wins, making a case that their number one ranking is much more worthy.
“There is a reason why players come to Gonzaga,” Few said. “Players on this team feel comfortable. We have eight guys on this team that can score, but not dominate on the stat sheet. We can unify very well as a team. This year we have had some solid wins, but we have had some sneaky wins where we needed to grind it out against good defensive teams. Our team is really focused and just seems like they come out ready to play.”
Sure the Bulldogs will be battle tested this Saturday against the Gaels yet again. Sure the team from Moraga wants revenge from the loss they endured in Spokane a few weeks back. Saint Mary’s has some to prove, but the Bulldogs will steal the national spotlight to show that out of all the years of frustration in March, one more marquee win could boost their morale, making it a possibility to earn a ticket to the palace in Phoenix at the end of the month.
“We can’t predict the future, but we are having a lot of fun on the court,” Karnowski said. “We are happy right now, but we aren’t satisfied with what we are doing. We know we still have a long way to go, and rankings and undefeateds that people keep mentioning to us can’t phase us. Our strategy from the beginning is to stay together, play well, and keep winning relying on our coaching staff and move forward game after game.”