By Zachery Bonzheim
The new Associated Press Top 25 came out with not too many surprises –a former Cinderella sitting atop the of the men’s college basketball world.
This week we found the Gonzaga Bulldogs from Spokane, Washington, at the number one spot in the land. John Stockton’s alma mater, the only undefeated team in the country, does not shy away from the national spotlight the national spotlight as this may be only its second time at number one, it’s been used to taking down giants in the tournament since 1999.
Led by Mark Few, a fifty-four-year-old Oregon native, the Bulldogs have seen success comparable to that of Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, Louisville, Arizona, and all other top-level programs. He has gotten them into the tournament each of his 17 years with the only year where he has not claimed either the conference tournament or conference championship.
Gonzaga has built its success in a relatively unknown conference. The West Coast Conference has been for many years a league with two teams, Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. With the addition of BYU in 2011, the conference has offered three tournament ready teams every year, whether the committee lets three mid-majors from the same conference in is different. Gonzaga, like all of the schools in the conference, is a private religious institution. And like all of the rest, with the exception of BYU, it is relatively small with an enrollment of 7,500.
How has such a small school become a regular to the AP Top 25? They get transfers, have a balanced roster, good bigs, and recruit internationally. Current Gonzaga star, Nigel Williams-Goss, was a transfer from Washington while counterpart Jordan Matthews came from California. Few has taken advantage of the rigorous transfer period by signing the most talented players year after year.
The Bulldogs are relying on transfers as their number one and number four scorers, both starters. Former All-American, Kyle Wiltjer, found himself at a crowded Kentucky and then came to Spokane for the same reason as the rest. They know at Gonzaga they will win – players come knowing every year they will get a NCAA bid and be the top team in the WCC and more often than not end the year with a conference and tournament championship. The glory of getting rings and hanging banners means more to kids than most would think and at Gonzaga it has become a expectation as opposed to an exception.
Gonzaga offers one of the most balanced rosters in all of college basketball. With three seniors, four juniors, four sophomores, and five freshmen. The Bulldogs do not need to worry about veteran leadership, big game experience, and fresh and eager legs coming off the bench. They haven’t built around players who will be there one year. Few’s players buy in and stay for the ride and the glory that being a Bulldog comes with.
Gonzaga has good big men, not one good big man, but many. The Bulldogs currently have six players at 6’9 or taller, three of which are at least 7-feet tall. Five of these bigs have seen playing time, accounting for 40.7 points per game, 78.2 minutes a game, and 21.4 rebounds a game. Of these big men, senior center, Przemek Karnowski, freshman forward, Zach Collins, and junior forward, Johnathan Williams, are the biggest contributors. Having three starter-quality big men of different ages provides the depth needed to go deep and win consistently year after year and affords Few the opportunity to build a program instead of just a team.
Finally, Few takes advantage of the international community to create a lineup that best suits his high scoring style of play. This past year he signed three different international players. With the addition to Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga has a strong international presence. Past years have offered the talents of Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania-son of Arvydas), Ronny Turiaf (France), Kevin Pangos (Canada), Elias Harris (Germany), Kelly Olynyk (Canada), Robert Sacre (Canada), and much more, all international recruits.
Gonzaga has grown immensely since last year. What is the difference between an undefeated team and a team barely in the AP Top 25? The answer is closing out games.
Last year the Bulldogs dropped many close ones. This year, Gonzaga has taken care of business. They have beaten a good San Diego State team, Florida, #21 Iowa State, #16 Arizona, Washington, and Tennessee. Gonzaga has not been doing this in close games like last year but rather blowing teams out. With average points per game of 85.2 (13th in the nation) and allowing opponents to 61.4 points per game(8th in the country), the Bulldogs have been winning by an average of 23.8 points per game (1st in the nation). This team, led by Nigel Williams-Goss, has remained to be the last unbeaten team in the country. With no ranked opponents until #18 Saint Mary’s on February, 11th, the Bulldogs will hold onto their streak much longer.
Expect to see these Bulldogs deep in the tournament and it isn’t outlandish to think this might be the first time that the glass slipper finally fits for Gonzaga, although they are Cinderella no more.