Saying Gonzaga is going to make the NCAA tournament is hardly a prediction. After all, the Bulldogs have gone every season since 1999.
Once there, however, the Zags haven’t exactly added to their résumé lately. They haven’t advanced to the Elite Eight since Year 1 of the run — Gophers fans will recall that team beat shorthanded Minnesota in the first round behind the coaching talent of Dan Monson, who months later was hired by the Gophers.
But the last of five Sweet 16 appearances for the midmajor from Spokane, Wash., came in 2009. Since then, the Bulldogs have won their NCAA tournament opener in three consecutive years before being dumped in the round of 32 by higher-seeded opponents.
That brings us to this season — and arguably the most talented team coach Mark Few has put together, a balanced squad with a refined, intriguing offense.
Is this year the year the Zags will make a splash?
“We haven’t made it out of the second round ever since I’ve been here, so that’s a big focus,” said Sam Dower, a 6-9 junior center who starred locally at Osseo High School. “I think this team has a good chance to make a big impact when it comes to talking about tournament time … but we want to get past the second round and going deeper than the Sweet 16, deeper than the Elite Eight. We want to make it to the Final Four.”
Why stop there? The other mighty midmajor Bulldogs — Butler — advanced to back-to-back NCAA title games in 2010 and ’11, becoming an inspiration, Dower said, to Gonzaga.
Gonzaga (16-1) will get the chance to compare itself with No. 14 Butler when the two schools play in Indianapolis next Saturday, but the Zags have other business on their minds as well. Last season, for the first time in 15 years, a team not named Gonzaga won the West Coast Conference regular-season title and the conference tournament; St. Mary’s took both prizes. Gonzaga got some revenge Thursday with an 83-78 victory over St. Mary’s, but there is a lot of season left to play.
“We kind of had a chip on our shoulders from not winning that because we were coming in this year as not the best team in the West Coast Conference, so we had no bragging rights,” Dower said.
So players spent more time as a group in the weight room and gym during the summer, said Dower, who is averaging 7.5 points per game. Guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell have greatly improved, while surprise star Kelly Olynyk — a 7-footer who redshirted after his sophomore season for developmental reasons — has helped to root a frontcourt that already had senior Elias Harris.
After getting seeded eighth in the 2010 tournament, 11th in 2011 and seventh last year, Gonzaga is listed in early projections as high as a No. 2 seed — and the team has jumped to No. 9 in the AP poll, one spot behind the Gophers. But Gonzaga’s key to maintaining all of that is ignoring it, Dower said, noting the team avoids reading about itself as a rule.
“Usually when you have a team with good players, they think it’s all about them and whatnot, but that’s not a problem with this team,” he said. “We’re all out there for one thing, which ultimately is to win the NCAA tournament.”
• Just how hard a player is working is typically subjective, but John Calipari has discovered a way to know for sure.
The Kentucky coach recently started having players wear heart-monitoring devices in practices and games to track exertion rates, caloric expenditures and heart rates. Wow — my first thought is that the results could vary deceivingly for players whose hearts naturally start pumping faster and quicker than others. But then, Calipari noted it’s a good tool to also know when to back off a player.
To Calipari’s credit, he has talked about the importance of the other stuff, too — you know, instilling toughness the old-school way — but has lamented that the lack of veterans this year leaves the Wildcats without much of a culture of work ethic. I have to admit, it’s interesting — if also incredibly intense. But hey, that’s Coach Cal.
• A new and interesting era for college basketball could be right around the corner. John Infante of the NCAA’s Bylaw Blog reported this week that the NCAA Leadership Council has brainstormed a potential new rule affecting transfers. Basically, if a player had a 2.6 grade-point average or higher, he or she would not have to sit out a year before playing at a new school, as is the case now. It’s in the discussion phase now, but if approved the rule could go into effect for the 2014-15 season. This idea has come into play because of dissatisfaction with current transfer rules, but the new rule could raise all sorts of interesting issues of its own.