SALT LAKE CITY — When they lost to Saint Mary’s last week, only managing 47 points in the defeat, the Gonzaga Bulldogs didn’t look anything like a national championship contender. All the naysayers piled on, saying the Bulldogs didn’t deserve to be a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament if they couldn’t even win their lousy conference championship.
Still, the Zags received the No. 1 seed in the West based on their 30-3 record, which included wins over major college teams such as Illinois, Texas A&M, Arizona and Washington, not to mention a victory over the mighty Duke Blue Devils.
The Bulldogs have become an institution in the NCAA Tournament over the past couple of decades with 21 straight trips to the NCAAs and nine berths in the Sweet 16, as well as a trip to the Final Four and the national championship game in 2017.
Now the question is, can Gonzaga take it a step further this year and go all the way?
Coach Mark Few deflected a question about whether this team has a better chance to go win a national championship compared to his other teams, saying he’s only concerned about his next game. But he did offer some words about why the 2019 team is so successful.
“Offensively, we’ve got a lot of answers and tons of versatility,” he said. “We’ve shown in 32 of 33 games that we can really share it and score it in a variety of ways. But our defense has been rock solid also.”
The Zags lead the nation in scoring at 88.8 points per game and in scoring margin at 24.2 points pr game. They’re also first in field-goal percentage by a wide margin at 53.2 percent and No. 1 in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.76).
On the defensive side, the Bulldogs rank No. 3 in the nation in blocked shots and are eighth in field-goal percentage defense and 27th in 3-point percentage defense.
In Thursday’s victory, their 11th straight opening-round win in NCAA Tournament play, the Bulldogs hardly broke a sweat, treating Fairleigh Dickinson like a junior college team in racing out to a 36-point halftime lead and coasting to an 87-49 victory.
It could have been much worse. Even FDU coach Greg Herenda acknowledged that afterward, complimenting Few for the way he handled the game when it was an early blowout and not trying to pile on.
“When it gets out of hand, you know how coaches handle games,” said Herenda. “And he did it incredibly professionally and he did it the right way and that's why their program is a program that I look up to and all the people at our level and our conference look up to Gonzaga. I respect those guys a whole heck of a lot.”
This year’s Zag team has offense, defense, size, versatility and depth.
Although they don’t have a center listed on their entire roster, they have a pretty big overall team with two 6-foot-8 all-Americans in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, a talented 6-6 swingman in sophomore Corey Kispert and a pair of sharpshooting guards in 6-5 Zach Norvell Jr. and 6-3 Josh Perkins, the only senior in the starting lineup.
While that is a formidable starting lineup, what makes the Zags different than the regular season is the addition of Killian Tillie, a 6-10 junior who missed the majority of the season with two separate foot injuries. Tillie may have been the best player on the floor Thursday night when he scored 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, including 2 of 2 from 3-point range, and passed out four assists in just 18 minutes off the bench.
Then there’s Geno Crandall, a 6-3 graduate transfer, who started for three seasons at North Dakota where he was an all-Big Sky performer, averaging more than 14 points a game. He’s only averaged 5.3 points this year in a reserve role, playing 19 minutes a game, but he’s a valuable addition off the bench as he showed Thursday when he scored 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting.Comment on this story
The Bulldogs aren’t expecting another cakewalk Saturday (5:10 p.m., TBS) against Baylor, which sank 16 of 34 3-point shots in a win over Syracuse.
Few said his defense was excellent against Fairleigh Dickinson and will need another similar effort against the Bears.
“I think our defense was a big key early last night and that kind of got our offense going,” he said.
“They were very, very good on defense,” said FDU's Mike Holloway about Gonzaga after Thursday’s game. “We know they are a national championship capability team.”
Now we’ll see if the Bulldogs can prove it over the next couple of weeks, beginning Saturday night.