In spite of a program-best season culminating in a No. 1 national ranking and a one seed in the NCAA Tournament, there’s one thing we know about the Gonzaga Bulldogs going into their first and second round games this week–no matter how impressive against a 16 seed and an eight or nine seed in week one, the Bulldogs will not win the tournament, and weak guard play will be to blame.
What Gonzaga has going its way, other than a stellar coaching staff and a lot of wins, is the best 4-5 combo in the nation. Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk have shown 31 times how they can beat you in multiple and complimentary ways. No team can match up with both these posts, and this pair is the reason Gonzaga earned their ranking and seed.
Yet, in this tournament guards dominate. Gonzaga holds an impressive history of guards, which stopped short of the 2012-13 season, leaving their backcourt with few strengths and numerous holes.
Point guard Kevin Pangos receives praise as a “game changer,” though he possesses one tool–his set shot. He cannot blow by an average athlete, has no pull-up game, has a weak handle for a nationally ranked starting point guard and makes up for none of these shortcomings on defense. Pangos shoots an average of two free throws a game, many of which were intentional fouls committed to stop the clock in Gonzaga’s few close games. Of the nine field goals he attempts each game, five come from behind the arc, indicative of a player with one real skill — albeit one he excels at — that a good coach doesn’t need to even commit his best wing defender to neutralize.
Heading into this season, if one Gonzaga player screamed breakout star, it wasn’t Olynyk, but shooting guard Gary Bell, Jr. Short of reaching those expectations, Bell, Jr. has disappointed Gonzaga’s faithful by regressing in almost every statistical category compared to his freshman year. He has a jump shot–39 percent from three–and is the one Bulldog guard capable of solid defense. But instead of emerging as a star, he’s the one player most likely to go silent when needed most.
There would be no bench to speak of if not for the incessant idiocy of outlets like Sports Illustrated’s labeling backup point guard David Stockton a “distributor in the mold of his NBA father, John [Stockton].” What SI meant was even though the junior guard has improved, not a soul outside Spokane believes that if David Stockton were David Stockman, he would be on this roster. Though not his fault, and not to disparage the junior with a career 99 percent of the basketball universe envies, that he receives minutes at all is perplexing. An unathletic, poor ballhandler without a jump shot (39 percent from the field and 29 percent from distance) is a testament to the underwhelming guards complimenting Gonzaga’s elite posts.
That blue-ribbon frontcourt and participation ribbon backcourt is ideal for many lower seeded would-be Cinderellas.
Guard play dominates the NCAA Tournament, and good guards often get good posts into foul trouble. Gonzaga is perfectly slated to run into a team — say, New Mexico — who will manhandle their guards with aggressive defense and penetration, while earning Olynyk, Harris or both seats on the bench due to foul trouble. Gonzaga would not be the first to have all-American posts pick up a few cheap fouls and watch their championship dreams disappear.
This will happen, and the Bulldogs will fall.
None of which diminishes the resume Gonzaga brings–31 wins, eight against tournament teams, 5-0 versus Big 12 schools and two losses to tournament teams by a combined 12 points. The Bulldogs’ seed and ranking are more than justified, yet it’s foolish to talk yourself into the Bulldogs as champions when their glaring weakness is the strength of so many tournament teams.
Brian Marceau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org