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Gonzaga Is Better Than Its Reputation

The Zags are the last remaining unbeaten team in the nation — and have the pieces to shed their largely undeserved label. Plus, Louisville’s multifaceted defense looks as terrifying as ever.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

After I highlighted Creighton and West Virginia in the last edition of the most powerful power rankings in college basketball, both teams had a rough week. The Mountaineers narrowly escaped Texas in Austin before losing at home to Oklahoma, while the Bluejays suffered a devastating blow when point guard Mo Watson tore the ACL in his left knee in a win over Xavier. I don’t feel all that bad for West Virginia since its performance feels inevitable; it always seems to hover around the middle of the top 25, upset a highly ranked team to catapult into the national spotlight, and then quickly come crashing back to earth. I’m not as high on the Mountaineers as I was seven days ago, but they’ve been in this spot before, so it’s not like their season is over or anything.

Creighton, on the other hand … yeesh. I’m not even sure what to say to make Bluejays fans feel better. Watson was playing at an All-American level and was the guy the team could least afford to lose. He’s a fifth-year senior, making the premature end of his career all the more heartbreaking. Throw in the fact that Creighton hasn’t made the Sweet 16 since 1974 and the idea that this group seemed destined for — ah, shit, what am I doing? This is the exact opposite of helping.

I’m sorry, Creighton fans. Here’s a little something to help dry your tears.

Injuries are an unfortunate reality of the game and an all too common occurrence in college basketball. I don’t say that to downplay the magnitude of Watson’s career ending. Words don’t exist to describe how badly it sucks. I’m just trying to offer a positive perspective: Sometimes, in a weird way, things like this help us appreciate college basketball even more. They remind us that there isn’t always next year for amateur athletes with a finite amount of NCAA eligibility, and that we shouldn’t take for granted the special moments our favorite teams and players provide. I obviously wish Watson hadn’t torn his ACL, both for his sake and because Creighton could have had a breakthrough season. But since it happened and there’s no going back, the only thing we can do now is hold onto all the healthy ACLs out there and make sure they understand how much we love them.

12. West Virginia (15–3)
11. Creighton (18–1)
10. Florida State (17–2)
9. Oregon (17–2)

8. Louisville (16–3)

We, as a college basketball community, are facing a crisis that has the potential to devastate each and every one of us. And the terrifying part is that most people have no idea it’s coming. They’re just going about their normal lives, drinking in the stories about UCLA’s resurgence, Villanova’s pursuit of back-to-back national titles, Gonzaga’s unblemished record, Duke’s season turning into a reality TV show, Kansas’s four-guard lineup, and Kentucky’s dynamic freshman backcourt. It makes me sick to my core to see the media continue to pull the wool over so many eyes, which is why I’m here to disseminate the truth: The Louisville Cardinals are good as shit.

Deng Adel and Mangok Mathiang (Getty Images)
Deng Adel and Mangok Mathiang (Getty Images)

No, really. I don’t mean that Louisville could maybe, possibly, potentially be good, or that the Cardinals are a fun team that might win a couple of NCAA tournament games. I mean that it’s almost a certainty that Louisville will destroy your favorite team and/or your bracket in March. It plays the best defense in college basketball, which is noteworthy in and of itself. What makes that defense truly scary, though, is the fact that it consists of a handful of different looks, making it damn near impossible to crack its code. The Cardinals length, athleticism, and depth paired with head coach Rick Pitino’s defensive wizardry gives this team the flexibility to shuffle through a variety of approaches — man-to-man, a 2–3 zone, a press that speeds offenses up, a press that slows opponents down, or some combination — on any given night.

I can’t overstate how rare this is. I mean, how many great defensive teams in college basketball history have mixed up the defenses they played? Very few. In fact, most great defensive teams succeed precisely because they stick to one approach, practicing it over and over until they’ve fully mastered it. Louisville has definitely skewed toward using man-to-man and a contain press (designed to slow offenses down, as opposed to West Virginia’s press, which is designed to make offenses play out of control) more than other defenses this season, so I should clarify that the Cards don’t change up their look on every possession. But the point remains: In the unlikely event that an opponent figures out how to attack Louisville’s defense, the Cardinals can always turn to one of a handful of aces up their sleeve.

The concern with Louisville, as is typically the case, is that its half-court offense can be abysmal. It makes no sense how this always happens. The Cardinals have plenty of guys who are capable of offensive outbursts, as seven different players have scored 15 or more points in a game this season, including sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell, who’s done it in each of his last six outings. The problem seems to be getting all of these guys — or even half — to play well on the offensive end at the same time. Every so often the Cards come alive on offense, shoot well from the 3-point line, and leave me wondering if they might be the best team in the country. (The best example of this came on New Year’s Eve, when Louisville diced up Indiana’s defense, went 8-for-19 from deep, and dominated the Hoosiers during a 77–62 win.) Only instead of getting excited that Louisville finally put it all together, I left frustrated that it can’t do that every time it takes the court.

So how much does Louisville’s offensive inconsistency matter? Well, that’s the thing, and why the Cards are so scary: It doesn’t matter a damn bit. This is par for the course for Pitino. When he has good half-court offenses, he wins national titles. When he doesn’t, he still goes to the Elite Eight. I’m a firm believer in great defense mattering far more than great offense in the NCAA tournament, since it’s much easier to have an off shooting night than it is to have an off night with a long, athletic defense that swallows players alive. That’s something Pitino figured out long ago. All Louisville really needs is one or two guys to be not completely horrible on offense and it’ll be fine. Or perhaps the easiest solution for the Cardinals to is just to make sure that the good version of Deng Adel shows up, seeing how he dropped 18 on Kentucky and 17 on Indiana (Louisville’s two most impressive games) but went a combined 10-for-44 in the team’s four worst results of the season (three losses and an overtime win against Old Dominion).

Louisville has multiple players who could wind up in the NBA (Mitchell, Adel, Anas Mahmoud, and V.J. King all have potential even though they aren’t exactly can’t-miss prospects), the best defense in America, and a 16–3 record despite playing one of the most difficult schedules in college basketball. It has wins over Kentucky, Duke, Purdue, Indiana, and Wichita State, while its losses came against Baylor (Louisville led for more than 35 minutes before choking the game away), Virginia (a result that shouldn’t even count since the Cavaliers’ system is basically Pitino’s kryptonite), and Notre Dame (which came at the end of a brutal Cards’ stretch of facing four straight ranked opponents). And most importantly, the Cardinals have been to three of the last four Elite Eights in which they’ve been eligible (they sat out of the 2016 NCAA tournament because of a self-imposed ban), with a Sweet 16 trip in the one season they fell short of the Elite Eight.

I’ll say it again: Louisville is good as shit. Don’t let the lack of media attention or the inconsistent shooting throw you off, America. The Cards are good enough to win a national championship. Do your part to spread the word. We can’t let these bastards sneak up on us in March.

7. North Carolina (17–3)

Halftime

It’s halftime, which can mean only one thing: It’s time for Dick’s Degrees of Separation, the most mildly amusing internet game involving college basketball! You know the drill: I give you the endpoint of a Dick Vitale tangent and you pick the path he took to get there. Let’s get to it.

During Saturday’s North Carolina–Florida State game in Chapel Hill, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Harry Truman?

A. Dave O’Brien, who is calling the game with Vitale, starts a discussion about the best conferences in the country. Vitale offers his thoughts on some of the power-five leagues, mentioning how surprising it is to see Maryland atop the Big Ten standings. Vitale says that he might have to swing by College Park to catch a practice when he’s in Washington, D.C., for the presidential inauguration. He quickly makes it clear that he isn’t very political and is only going to the inauguration because he respects the office of president, no matter who occupies it. Dickie V. then notes that one of the first presidents to be inaugurated in his lifetime was Harry Truman.

B. When O’Brien points out that Wake Forest gave North Carolina a good game a few days earlier, Vitale says he believes that Demon Deacons coach Danny Manning is the right man for the job, and that it takes time to build a program. Dickie V. goes on to explain that Manning no longer has the magic of Phog Allen Fieldhouse to help with recruiting, something that makes his current success all the more impressive. After O’Brien tells viewers what kind of season Wake Forest is having, Vitale circles back to his mention of Phog Allen Fieldhouse to ask O’Brien if he knew that Phog Allen went to high school in Independence, Missouri, with Harry Truman.

C. During a break in the action, O’Brien reads a promo for the upcoming game between Auburn and Kentucky. The graphic that accompanies the announcement shows a picture of Kentucky’s Malik Monk, prompting Vitale to mention that the Wildcats have one of the best backcourts in America. Speaking of great backcourts, Vitale continues, Creighton has really strong guard play. Dickie V. then points out that the Bluejays just defeated Truman State, which Vitale finds particularly amusing because he had never previously heard of Truman State. He jokingly asks O’Brien if Truman State is named after Harry Truman.

6. Baylor (17–1)
5. Kentucky (16–2)
4. UCLA (19–1)

3. Gonzaga (18–0)

Here we go again. Another great Gonzaga group has emerged on the national scene — this time as the last remaining undefeated team in college basketball — and, predictably, doubts about whether it truly belongs at the adult table are growing louder. They ain’t played nobody! If they were in the ACC, they wouldn’t even make the tournament! Any power-conference team could go undefeated if you put them in the West Coast Crapference! Shoot, Adam Morrison cried that one time and then Gonzaga lost to Wichita State that other time! If that’s not proof that Gonzaga couldn’t even win an NAIA national title, I don’t know what is!

Mark Few (AP Images)
Mark Few (AP Images)

Look, I get it. Gonzaga is victim of two very real biases in college basketball: It plays in a mid-major conference and it plays on the West Coast. From January through the start of the tourney, the Zags typically take part in only two or three nationally relevant and televised games, and those always seem to tip off at 10 p.m. ET or later. Thus, most of the people who gripe about Gonzaga do so from a place of ignorance. They keep their TVs tuned to ESPN all season and watch only the ACC, the Big Ten, the Big 12, Kentucky, and whatever Pac-12 games Bill Walton calls. They might catch one or two Big East games a week, but Gonzaga never enters their frame of reference. So when they look up the AP poll each week and see a team they know nothing about near the top, their brains scramble to make sense of it, as if the only way a team could really be good is if they’ve previously seen it play. As the confusion sets in, these people place a disproportionate amount of weight in the things about Gonzaga that feel familiar, like how the Zags regularly underachieve in the NCAA tournament. And that’s how Ronny Turiaf and Blake Stepp getting upset by Nevada in the second round of the 2004 tourney becomes a talking point in discussing whether the 2016–17 Bulldogs can make the Final Four.

Here’s the thing about that type of thinking, though: Gonzaga doesn’t actually have a terrible tournament history. This is my biggest pet peeve with all of the talk that surrounds the Zags. If you’ve watched the current iteration of this team and still think it sucks, fine. But if you refuse to watch it because you’re in the Gonzaga-always-chokes-in-March-so-why-bother crowd, then it’s time for a little history lesson. Here’s a rundown of head coach Mark Few’s NCAA tournament appearances:

There’s a lot to unpack, but the gist is this: In the last decade, Gonzaga has overachieved in the NCAA tournament twice and been upset twice. One of those upsets came in 2008, against Steph Curry and Davidson; the other came in 2013, against a Wichita State team that went on to reach the Final Four. That Wichita State loss plays a huge part in the Zags’ reputation, since the 2012–13 Gonzaga team entered the tourney ranked no. 1 in the country and was supposed to be the one to silence the doubters. But the Shockers making the Final Four should take a little of the stink off Gonzaga, right? Ohio State was a no. 2 seed in Gonzaga’s region that season and also got bounced by Wichita State. So maybe the Bulldogs’ loss to the Shockers had more to do with the latter being good than the former being overrated? And why should one instance of a no. 1 seed losing in the second round doom the program forever? After all, Kentucky, Kansas, Arizona, and North Carolina have all had various no. 1 seeds suffer the same fate.

Here’s my theory on how Gonzaga got stuck with its reputation as NCAA tournament choker. The Zags became America’s darlings in 1999, when then-coach Dan Monson took his 10th-seeded Bulldogs to the Elite Eight and gave no. 1 seed UConn all that it could handle. Monson then accepted the Minnesota job and handed the reins of the program to Few, who immediately went to back-to-back Sweet 16s. After the Zags pushed top-seeded Arizona to double overtime in the 2003 tournament, the Gonzaga bandwagon became packed to the brim, especially since the 2003–04 squad was supposed to be legitimately good and not just a Cinderella story. So when Gonzaga proceeded to blow the next two NCAA tournaments, many took it personally, as if Gonzaga had purposely roped them in only to stomp on their hearts.

This frustration compounded a few years later, when Morrison — or as I call him, Gonzaga Jesus — blossomed into the greatest basketball player of all-time and promised to wash away all the sins of Gonzaga past. We were cautioned to not jump off the bandwagon yet, because the 2005–06 team was going to break through and deliver the first Final Four in school history. You know what happened next. Gonzaga blew a big second-half lead against UCLA in the Sweet 16, Morrison cried with time left on the clock, and the cement started to dry on Gonzaga’s reputation. Nevermind that UCLA was the higher seed and the end result was what many expected going in. All that America took from that game was that Gonzaga pulled off an all-time choke job and couldn’t even make the Elite Eight with a generational talent. Morrison crying was the icing on the cake.

Making matters worse, George Mason reached the Final Four that same year, the first of a wave of new underdog stories in the years to come. From the moment Morrison cried until the end of the 2013–14 campaign, George Mason, Butler, VCU, and Wichita State all made Final Fours, while Dayton, Davidson, and Xavier all made Elite Eights. Meanwhile, Gonzaga made only one Sweet 16 during that span, and it wasn’t even the year that the Zags were a no. 1 seed. Just like that, the Zags found themselves in no-man’s-land of college basketball relevancy, where they weren’t big enough to receive season-long national attention and no longer charming enough to be the first team that comes to mind when someone mentions the term “March Madness Cinderella.”

Przemek Karnowski (Getty Images)
Przemek Karnowski (Getty Images)

Which brings us to this season. Believe it or not, the 2016–17 version of Gonzaga is the best in school history and a legitimate national title threat. Nigel Williams-Goss is averaging 15 points and 4.8 assists per game and is as good as any point guard in America. Przemek Karnowski is a 7-foot-1, 300-pound brick wall who looks like a cross between Mikey from Recess and the Mountain from Game of Thrones. And even though Jordan Mathews, Zach Collins, Josh Perkins, and Johnathan Williams all have names that are so generic that they sound like characters from a young adult mystery novel, that quartet provides the Zags with the size, athleticism, and skill to compete with any team in the country.

I know it’s tempting to think that Gonzaga does this every year, where they win 30 or so games, get a high seed in the tournament, and then choke in the second round. But that’s simply not true. The program has had maybe four teams (excluding this one) in its history that were good enough to win a national title. And yeah, all of those teams failed to make the Final Four. But when you apply some context, the Zags’ track record isn’t that bad.

Gonzaga is the only team in college basketball with both a top-five offensive efficiency rating and a top-five defensive efficiency rating on KenPom. It is undefeated with wins over Florida, Iowa State, Arizona, and St. Mary’s. This is an experienced roster that also happens to be the biggest, most athletic, and most skilled team Few has ever coached. You can believe the Zags are overrated if you want. It’s a free country. You can wear your pants on your head and speak only by making fart noises with your armpit, for all I care. But I’d caution against thinking that what we’re seeing from the Bulldogs is typical or that the Zags are more inclined than other programs to underachieve in March.

2. Kansas (17–1)
1. Villanova (18–1)

The Postgame Handshake Line of the Week

I’m guessing the majority of you have already seen this, but for those who haven’t, here’s the backstory: A altercation broke out near the end of Tuesday’s Rider–Siena game. Punches were thrown, players from both teams were ejected, and all sorts of technical fouls were doled out. After Siena won 78–68, Rider coach Kevin Baggett decided to have his team forgo the postgame handshake line to prevent another scuffle. That left Siena coach Jimmy Patsos to improvise.

The Dick’s Degrees of Separation answer is C. See you next week.