In the hoopla of making the final four, it’s been lost that the team the South Carolina Gamecocks are supposed to play Saturday might be the best in the country. The Gonzaga Bulldogs — who year after year lead college basketball in disrespect — are all that stands between the Gamecocks and the national championship game.
This bodes the question: what is a Gonzaga exactly? Was it a person or a thing? Who are these mysterious titans from the Pacific Northwest? We went and asked Peter Woodburn from The Slipper Still Fits about what about this Gonzaga team separates them from the other Bulldog teams who fell short in the past.
1) Honestly, I can't tell you anything about Gonzaga as a school outside of basketball. Could you tell us more about Gonzaga the institution?
Gonzaga sits in Spokane, aka the inland capitol of the Northwest. It is a small Jesuit institution, with a total enrollment of somewhere around 7,000 or so. Gonzaga sits in the Logan Neighborhood of Spokane, packed right along the Spokane River, and just a short walk to downtown. It is a rather small campus, but it is a pretty one.
There was a (not) rad Cuba Gooding Jr. and Angie Harmon movie filmed there my sophomore (I think) year, because the administration building of GU resembles D.C. Go figure. (here is the link in case you want to see it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdB-03Mye4I)
2) Okay now on to the juicy basketball stuff. How exhausting has it been the past 18 years hearing the national media call Gonzaga "frauds" because they play in the WCC?
It has been so exhausting I don't even bother with it anymore. The fact of the matter is that yes, head to toe, the WCC is not a very good conference. But this also means that people tend to completely discount everything Gonzaga has done all season because of it -- this season is no different.
The calls rang loud and true that the Zags were overrated because of the WCC, ignoring that Gonzaga beat Florida, Iowa State, Arizona, and Saint Mary's (x3). By no means, the top team in the nation resume, but the metrics backed it all up.
Unfortunately, it isn't something that can easily change anytime soon. The Zags don't have a football program, so that limits their ability to move out of the WCC. All we can hope for is that Saint Mary's becomes more of a household name, that BYU shows some consistency, and that people realize that the conference, albeit not good, isn't the worst thing on the planet.
3) What's been lost in all of that is how amazing a job Mark Few has done with the program. You have to feel good for him right? This is like his ultimate retribution.
He has said time and time against that he doesn't have a monkey on his back without the Final Four appearance, but at some point, you have to figure that was starting to grate on the nerves. It is his 18th year as the head coach, and the 19th year of the NCAA Tournament streak. Gonzaga was starting to resemble the 1990s Atlanta Braves — a whole lot of regular season championships and not much else to show for it.
I think the thing is the Zags have definitely been good, but they haven't had too many Final Four opportunities (as a team/who they have run up against in the tournament). Especially after the Wichita State loss the last time the Zags were a No. 1 seed, people seem to think that it would never happen--both the non-fans and a lot of the actual fans.
4) Adam Morrison, Kelly Olynyk, Kyle Wiltjer, Ronny Turiaf -- all of those names fell short yet this is the team that makes it to the Final Four. Who is the guy Gonzaga fans will remember off this squad?
The national media is going to remember Nigel Williams-Goss. He was named to the All-Wooden team, and is one of the best point guards in the nation. He can score from inside and out, and is a tenacious defender. Across the board, he is one of the most balanced players on the team, if not the nation.
However, for the locals, I think most people will remember Przemek Karnowski. He is the Zags seven foot brick of a human being that tramples around the post. Outside of being able to change how to attack the rim just by standing there, he is also one of the best passing big men in the nation.
You combine that with his berserkly friendly demeanor, and he is already a fan favorite. But this year means much more for him, because Karnowski underwent season-ending back surgery last season, and there were legitimate fears that he wouldn't ever play basketball again.
I've been saying all year that Karnowski's resurgence is the best story in college basketball, but then Northwestern went and made the tournament. Now that they are out, Karnowski is back to being one of the best stories in college basketball.
5) So is it this group of players that's made this Gonzaga team different than the other teams, or is it something more?
There are a couple of things, namely defensive focus and depth. South Carolina can appreciate a good defensive-minded squad, being the No. 2 KenPom ranked defense and all. But the Zags are No. 1, and that isn't inflated because they play in the WCC. Just take a look at what the Zags have done this tournament.
They have clamped down on every opponent this year (except for one time against BYU). The defense is a total team effort. Gonzaga doesn't generate an excessive amount of turnovers, they just make it miserable to find an open shot.
The second part is depth, and that is where the Zags are so dangerous. Karnowski is in foul trouble? No worries! We just sub in the 7'0 McDonald's All-American Zach Collins. He gets in foul trouble?
No worries! In comes the 6'10 Frenchman Killian Tillie. Both Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins can play point, and Silas Melson can spell if they need to. Across the board, the Zags first sub off the bench would be a starter on probably 2/3 of Division I schools.
6) Gonzaga has been great this year, but is there one flaw or vulnerability that scares fans?
The big flaw that scares fans is this March Madness ingrained idea that no lead is big enough to cough up. No joke, when we were up by 20 on Xavier, I had friends texting me "UCLA," an ode to the infamous Adam Morrison crying game.
There have been a couple of scares this season (namely against Iowa State and boy did Northwestern get close), but each time the Zags have come out ahead. If anything, I think that is mostly just PTSD from previous years, and the Zags this year are in the process of sweeping those reservations away.