Ever since Gonzaga appeared on the scene as everyone’s favorite Cinderella in the 1990’s, every subsequent year the same question has been raised: Is this the season the Bulldogs can finally break through and be crowned champs at the Final Four?
Under the auspices of head coach Mark Few, the Zags have come awfully close a few times, most notably two years ago when they gave North Carolina all they had before succumbing late in losing the championship, 71-65. This year could be the year the glass slipper finally fits, as Few has all the pieces and weapons to be the team cutting down the nets in Minnesota—home of this season’s Final Four.
Gonzaga May Finally Have Enough To Be The Last Team Standing
As the No.1-ranked team in the country, Gonzaga is playing at an elite level and passing all tests this year with flying colors.
On Saturday, the team went into a hostile environment at Creighton and had the composure, will and determination to pull out an important game on the road.
After trailing at halftime, Gonzaga got hot in the second half behind a 12-0 run. The Zags shot 51.4 percent in the second half and 42.1 percent from three-point range while junior Zach Norvell Jr. was the hot hand whom Gonzaga rode to victory.
To say that the Zags are battle-tested would be a massive understatement. They have already beaten solid clubs in Texas A&M, Illinois and Arizona. And oh yeah, they beat that team you may have heard of, Duke.
Many people thought Duke would be the victors in the finals of the Maui Invitational behind their star-studded freshmen class, but it was the veteran-laden and mettle-tested Bulldogs who outlasted the Blue Devils to make an early-season statement.
A statement is exactly what is being made early by Few’s squad this season. Perhaps a statement we have never seem from the Bulldogs.
The Zags are putting people on notice that this may finally be just the year that Gonzaga is the last team standing.
They certainly have all the pieces to make this the year.
Few goes seven deep at the moment and that is minus two important pieces in Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall, who are currently out with injuries.
Tillie will be sidelined for another 4-6 weeks with an ankle injury. The French big man was a key component for the Bulldogs last season, averaging 12.9 points, 5.9 rebounds while shooting 47.9 percent from three-point range.
His return will only enhance the team, as he provides the Zags with a stretch-four who can work inside out.
Meanwhile, North Dakota grad transfer Crandall was thriving early as a spark plug off the bench. The back-up point guard will be sidelined for approximately another 4-5 weeks while recovering from a fractured hand. Crandall was averaging 5 points and 2.3 assists in roughly 18 minutes per game.
As for the players making their mark now, well, let’s just say it’s an embarrassment of riches for Few. He has four players averaging in double-figures in points— with three of them averaging as many as 17 points per game.
A New Greek Freak?
Leading the way is NBA prospect Rui Hachimura.
Some label him the Japanese version of the Greek Freak (Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo). He is an active combo forward who could get to the basket either by brute strength or by finesse. Hachimura is leading the team in scoring (21.9 points) on 60.6 percent shooting from the field while adding 6.1 rebounds per game.
He can affect a game on both ends of the floor and the junior is expected to be a lottery pick come next June.
Complementing him are Norvell and San Jose transfer Brandon Clarke. Clarke (17.3 points) and Norvell (18.6 points) are a couple of savvy scorers who can light up the scoreboard on the drop of a dime.
It was the Norvell show on Saturday vs. Creighton, as his scoring carried the Zags in the victory. The smooth scorer also chips in a solid 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, while shooting 37.8 percent from three-point range.
Clarke is the energy guy for the Bulldogs, as he plays hard on every possession. He is also a defensive dynamo who contributes nicely across the board while leading the team in rebounding (7.8 rebounds per game) and blocks (a whopping 3.8 per game— which ranks second nationally). Clarke is also shooting an astonishing 77.3 percent from the field (which ranks third in the country). The jack-of-all-trades forward has been more than what Few could have asked for and then some.
Lastly, and certainly not least, is senior point guard Josh Perkins, the quarterback of the offense. His calm demeanor on the court and his senior leadership simply cannot be valued in metrics. Although to be fair to him, he is averaging nearly a double-double with 11.6 points and a team-leading 8.6 assists per game— which ranks third nationally.
Perkins was part of the championship run two years ago and he felt the sting of that crushing loss and there is no point guard in the country with the experience and hunger that possesses his combination of skills and intangibles. He lets the game come to him while making sure to get others involved first.
As you can see, Few and his Zags basically have everything you want in a team that has title aspirations. The Bulldogs boast the coaching, senior leadership (Perkins), the scoring (as a team they average 98.4 points per game, which ranks second nationally), the depth (eight players averaging at least 18 minutes per game and that does not include Tillie), and the defense (hello Clarke and Hachimura) to finally cross the finish line.
With great expectations comes pressure, but Few and his players (namely Perkins and Tillie) have been put through this situation before. That experience will pay off immense dividends in March.
Ready For The Spotlight
That along with their schedule will have them ready for March.
As previously mentioned, Gonzaga have already beaten five major conference teams and still have Washington (this Wednesday), No. 6 Tennessee (this Sunday) and a road trip to Chapel Hill in December to face the No.11-ranked Tar Heels-— who prevented their glory two years ago— on deck to toughen them up some more.
Don’t worry about complacency while they likely blitz through a mostly weak West Coast Conference undefeated. This team is battled tested, confident and most all extremely talented up and down the lineup.
The Best Opportunity?
When you add it up— and although Few has had some excellent teams before— this really is his best chance to capture the ultimate prize. And if they get through the non-conference undefeated, they could be looking at history, while trying to become the first team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to be the last undefeated national champions.
Let’s not put the cart before the horse just yet though.
Either way, enjoy the journey while watching this special Gonzaga squad, as there is no team in the country as talented, experienced, well-coached and compelling as these Zags.
We’ll see you in March, Gonzaga.
And if we’re lucky, in April as National Champs.