So what's the ceiling for the Zags?
Such was the rush created by the Zags’ ruthless 77-51 dispatch of Saint Mary’s the other night. Gonzaga treated the Gaels like somebody propped up in a “buy” game on a Wednesday night late in November, leading by 37 before SMC trimmed the deficit with its starters against Gonzaga subs.
Even so, 26 was the largest margin either of these WCC strongholds have inflicted on each other in their long history in the league tournament.
Sunday, Gonzaga earned a No. 3 seed opposite WAC winner Grand Canyon, with TCU, UCLA and high-upside Connecticut also lurking in the West Region.
Following the woodshedding of Saint Mary’s, the bouquets rained in for the Zags, except for this one from Brian Rauf, a writer at HeatcheckCBB.com:
“Seen a lot of talk about Gonzaga being a national-title contender because of how it blew out Saint Mary’s. To me, the game says more about the Gaels’ offensive struggles vs. athleticism than anything Gonzaga. Zags are still a solid team but I don’t see that ceiling . . . some issues – perimeter shot creation and rim protection chief among them – haven’t gone away. WCC opponents just couldn’t exploit them to the same extent.”
Rauf’s is a point worth examining. There are some warts with this Gonzaga team, and the question is: After a long, sometimes-bumpy season, have the Zags managed to chip away those weaknesses in advance of a long March run, or did they just do what they almost always do, which is shame the rest of the WCC?
Gonzaga’s performance against the Gaels was beyond dominating. Most impressively, its defensive rotations were terrific, its help almost unerring.
“Our defense was as good as it’s ever been,” said GU coach Mark Few. “It wasn’t just 10 minutes, 20 minutes, it was 40.”
The way it unfolded, Saint Mary’s was never going to win this game. But it also must be said that this was one of those nights for the Gaels, one in which they fluffed shots at the rim and threw passes to people in the seats. By themselves, apart from the Zags, they were horrendous.
Rauf’s observation about perimeter shot creation is valid. The Zags don’t have much of that. They do, however, run such exquisite offense – tops in the nation, per KenPom.com – that it helps mask that deficiency.
I’d be more concerned about that No. 75 defensive number in KenPom, and whether the Saint Mary’s evisceration is evidence of a defense finally getting it, or merely a one-off.
Zag fans who needn’t have a long memory might counter Rauf by pointing out that better Gonzaga teams have stumbled against Saint Mary’s – late season, and in the 2019 WCC-tournament final, when GU was top-ranked.
If you’re Zag-centric, you could argue the three games against Saint Mary’s this season summarize neatly Gonzaga’s ascendant arc. In Moraga early in February, the Zags led most of the way before Aidan Mahaney stole the game from them with a brilliant few minutes.
In Spokane, Gonzaga controlled throughout and won decisively but not in one-sided fashion. Then in Vegas, the Zags made Saint Mary’s look like the East Bay Irregulars.
This week, the Zags will truck some glitzy luggage into the NCAA tournament. They’ve won 13 straight first-round games, fifth all-time and trailing only a collection of royalty named North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA.
They’ve been in seven straight Sweet 16s. One more gets them undisputed third all-time, behind North Carolina and Duke.
Win it all? I doubt it. Even in a year of parity, that mountain is a sheer one for a team without great margin for error against the requisite array of opposing styles. What seems failsafe one night can be MIA the next. Last year, Andrew Nembhard was nails against Memphis, helping push the Zags into the Sweet 16. Against Arkansas, not so much.
But maybe with a break or two, the Final Four isn’t necessarily a bridge too far. For Zag types who would dare to dream, the Saint Mary’s game was a nudge into dreamland.