It’s only mid-February, but it’s never too early to start talking about March. Especially when a WCC team is currently projected as a probable no. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. So, let’s dive into the madness:
Feb 14, 2015; Spokane, WA, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs head coach Mark Few reacts after a call during a game against the Pepperdine Waves during the second half at McCarthey Athletic Center. The Bulldogs won 56-48. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
The Gonzaga Bulldogs are, barring a loss toward the tail end of conference play, likely to get a no. 1 seed in the tourney, marking the second time in three seasons they’ve accomplished such a feat. We all know how deep and talented this squad is – we’ve consistently focused on their strengths and made justifications for their high seeding and rankings.
But it hasn’t been all glorious, unwavering victories for the Zags this season. Though this is one of Mark Few’s best teams in his tenure at Gonzaga, it’s important to also make note of the areas that could use some improvement come tourney time.
The first thing that comes to mind is free throws. The Zags have been rather streaky from the charity stripe throughout the season. A potential X-Factor for them (and any team) as March approaches is consistency in free throws. My mind immediately turns to Gonzaga’s narrow victory over Pepperdine back in January, in which they went 14-33 from the free throw line, good for a rousing 42.4%. . . . you don’t need to be the winningest active head coach to know that this percentage won’t bode well in the tournament.
Then again, take a look back in December in Pauley Pavilion when the Zags went an outstanding 16-19 from the charity stripe against UCLA, good for 84.2%. Byron Wesley missed two free throws and Gary Bell Jr. missed one – that’s it. Everyone else was flawless from the line.
It feels like free throw shooting has been either spot-on or dreadful this year, and it’s been pretty 50/50. So what’s it going to be in the tourney? Which one of these teams is going to show up? This factor alone could be a determinant in the Zags’ success in the NCAA Tournament.
Feb 5, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Gary Bell Jr. (5) goes up for a shot while defended by Santa Clara Broncos guard Jared Brownridge (23) during the second half at Leavey Center. Gonzaga won 77-63. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports
Secondly, as Mark Titus pointed out in his most recent Top 12 Power Rankings, since Ken Pomeroy opened up his ranking system in 2002, every NCAA champion (excluding UConn last year) ranked in the top 25 of KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency. Right now, the only teams who fall under both of those categories are Kentucky, Virginia, Arizona, Utah, Kansas, and Villanova.
Gonzaga clearly has one of the best offenses in the nation and holds the best field goal percentage in the NCAA. But what about their defense? According to Titus, “recent history suggests that you can’t win a national title without excelling on both ends of the court.” The Zags aren’t bad on the defensive end, but their defense certainly does not match their offensive production. If they can work to make these two areas more balanced while keeping up their relentless shooting percentages, watch out.
Now, many Gonzaga fans are basing this team’s success heavily on the assumption that the Bulldogs remain undefeated for the season. But based on their past couple of conference matchups, Zags fans are starting to scratch their heads a little bit.
As Mark Titus also noted, it’s understandable and acceptable for inferior opponents to sometimes stick around longer than they should. That’s just the nature of conference play, whether you’re playing in the WCC or the ACC. But if it starts to become the norm, then you’ve got a problem. In three of Gonzaga’s last four conference games, the Bulldogs required a hefty offensive run in the second half to come out victorious. Check this out:
Halftime score at Santa Clara – SCU: 38 GU: 36
Halftime score at San Francisco – USF: 38 GU: 38
Halftime score vs Pepperdine – Pepp: 30 GU: 30
The Zags have not played well in the first half as of late. Lackadaisical defense, unusual offense, and a lot of unlucky bounces and spins around the rim have prevented the Bulldogs from gaining a comfortable lead in games where, I believe, they should have. If this problem follows into the NCAA Tournament, start saying your prayers. Gonzaga is currently the only WCC team projected into the tourney, meaning that a second half offensive run may not be enough to come away victorious anymore.
If the Bulldogs want to head back to the second week of the tournament, they’re going to need to play their hearts out for the full duration of the game. We’ve seen them play spectacularly against the likes of Arizona, St. John’s, SMU, and more, but for some reason this first half slump has become a bit of a trend in recent conference play.
With all of this being said, let’s just note that every team has its issues. This same article could be written about Kentucky, Virginia, and so on. I still have full confidence in this Gonzaga team. The amount of heart, team chemistry, and leadership that is exhibited night in and night out is phenomenal. This is a special squad that has the potential to do some big things in March Madness – get excited people.