The first week of the NCAA tournament may be the best four days on the sports calendar, packed with buzzer-beaters and underdogs with quirky mascots knocking off college hoops’ royalty.
The second week, bluebloods rise to the top and bracket-busting higher seeds exit.
The third week, a national champion is crowned.
Can Gonzaga own March Madness? The Zags have the requisite numbers: a No. 4 ranking, a 32-1 record and folders full of advanced metrics that support their billing as one of the nation’s best teams.
Naysayers will point to their soft WCC schedule and the program’s inability to reach a Final Four in 18 consecutive NCAA trips.
Will the 19th be different? Here are four reasons why this could be the year the Zags reach the Final Four:
The Zags’ starting lineup of Przemek Karnowski, Johnathan Williams, Jordan Mathews, Josh Perkins and Nigel Williams-Goss boasts 548 career games. Top sub Silas Melson has 100 career games under his belt.
Transfers Williams, Mathews and Williams-Goss combined for 231 games at their previous stops, but seasoning is seasoning and they played against high-caliber competition. Mathews played in the NCAA tournament with Cal last season.
Zach Collins and Killian Tillie rarely play like freshmen.
The Zags haven’t overlooked opponents. They’ve been relentless with 28 double-digit victories. They appeared rattled in their lone loss to BYU but bounced back to play well in tense situations during the WCC tournament.
Balance tips scales
Four quality bigs, four quality guards. The Zags’ have employed an eight-man rotation most of the season. Roles were established in the first month.
The frontcourt features Karnowski, a low-post nightmare for foes. He’s one of the best post defenders in the country. Opponents have to choose between guarding him solo or with double teams. He makes them pay either way with his soft touch and passing ability.
Williams is a strong finisher in the lane and a valuable defender, capable of guarding backcourt players. Collins has the stats of a starter even though he averages just 17 minutes per game. Tillie has a nose for the ball.
“One of the differences between us and Saint Mary’s and BYU is (Eric) Mika gets in foul trouble at BYU and (Jock) Landale is in foul trouble every time we played them,” Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “Zach gets four fouls in seven, eight minutes and we’re OK.”
The backcourt of Williams-Goss, Mathews, Perkins and Melson provides points and defense.
Gonzaga’s 3-point shooting tailed off a bit late in the season, but its season-long numbers remain strong. The foursome combined for 195 3-pointers and the team shoots 38.2 percent from distance.
Gonzaga has never put up more points. The Zags average 84.6 per game, three points clear of the 2001 team’s current record.
Their defense may be even better. It starts with protecting the rim, where Karnowski and company swat shots and, perhaps more importantly, alter shots.
Opponents average 61.2 points, 36.8 percent shooting and just 30 percent beyond the 3-point line.
“We have decent length and decent athleticism on the perimeter so we’re able to stick on shooters tighter,” Lloyd said. “But all of that is predicated on if we get beat we have somebody at the rim to contest the shot.”
Three-point defense has gone from troublesome to team strength.
“Years ago, if we had to take a deeper look we were prone to being upset and it seemed like the No. 1 thing was the 3-point shot,” Lloyd said. “Teams were able to get 10, 11, 12 made 3s and it’s hard to win when you give up that many. We looked back at how we were teaching it, changed some things and we’ve grown teaching it over the years.”
Williams-Goss, a transfer from the University of Washington, has been a reliable option in Gonzaga’s rare close games. He torched San Francisco for 36 points and BYU for 33. He had big buckets against Iowa State and Arizona.
His 3-pointer inside the final two minutes gave GU breathing room against Santa Clara in the WCC semifinals.
“At the end of those close games, it’s hard to keep throwing the ball inside. It’s hard to run a perfect play,” Lloyd said. “Sometimes it takes a guard creating and being able to make a shot.”