Final Four: How Gonzaga retooled on the fly and has its best team ever
Gonzaga lost four of the five guys who started in last year’s Sweet 16 showdown — a game it lost to eventual regional champion Syracuse — this offseason. Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, the star duo of the 2015-16 Bulldogs, combined to average 38 points and 18.1 rebounds. Replacing them wouldn’t be easy.
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Clearly, the Bulldogs were able to amass an army of impressive pieces. But how? And can other programs replicate Gonzaga’s success in the future?
Here’s what Gonzaga did to climb to the college basketball mountain top:
Would you rather have an 18-year-old incoming freshman that’s a 10 out of 10 on the talent scale or a 22-year-old that’s an eight out of 10? By the time said freshman is 22, he’ll be the better player. But today, thanks to superior strength, intelligence and maturity, you’d likely take the 22-year-old.
Gonzaga acquired both kinds of players last offseason.
It starts with Nigel Williams-Goss. He was once an excellent point guard at Washington. As a sophomore, Williams-Goss averaged 15.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists — similar to his dynamic all-around numbers at Gonzaga.
"[Gonzaga's] whole thing was about developing and winning, those two things exclusively,” Williams-Goss told the Seattle Times in December. “It wasn’t about the facilities or the location or the conference. It was strictly making me the best player I could possibly be and having a chance to win at the highest level.”
A common theme among Gonzaga’s transfers: Their per-game numbers are similar to what they were at their former schools, but their efficiency is way up. That’s the mark of a good team that boasts several talented players. Case in point, Williams-Goss' true shooting percentage (60.1) is 10 points higher than it was in 2014-15. He’s set the tone for his teammates in that regard.
Johnathan Williams was a good player at Missouri in 2014-15 — albeit an inefficient one. Williams, a quick-twitch athlete capable of banging in the post and hounding guards on switches, is perhaps Gonzaga’s most unheralded player — he gave Trevon Bluiett fits in the Elite Eight while scoring 19 points.
In a way, Williams is a microcosm of the Gonzaga program, which takes players with the tools to succeed and optimizes them. Williams’ physical gifts were obvious at Mizzou, but he shot 41.2 percent from the floor as a sophomore. That’s low for a point guard; it’s even worse for a power forward.
Williams is shooting almost 60 percent for Gonzaga; he doesn’t attempt many 3s, but he’s hitting them at a 40 percent clip. Williams isn’t a star in the traditional sense, but he’s a star in his role — an effective offensive cog who doesn’t need the ball in order to succeed. His defense speaks for itself.
Going into last offseason, outside shooting was on the top of Gonzaga’s priority list. Enter Jordan Mathews:
Mathews, a graduate transfer from California, had shot better than 40 percent from 3 in his two prior seasons. He’s done more of the same in Spokane; he leads the Zags with 79 made 3-pointers. Kyle Dranginis was a useful secondary ball-handler for Gonzaga last year, but Mathews is an undeniable upgrade — and most importantly, a knockdown shooter. The Bulldogs make 38 percent of their 3s as a team.
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A year ago, Przemek Karnowski’s future was murky at best.
"When you consider that this time last year we didn't know if he would play basketball ever again," head coach Mark Few said. "We didn't know if he was going to walk normal or function normal, because his back was so bad.
"It's a great story of redemption," Few continued. "A great story of just hanging with it, and it couldn't have happened to a better guy."
When healthy, Karnowski has always been dominant. He’s an immovable post defender. He cleans the glass. On offense, he’s a load to handle on the block — send a double-team, and you unlock his greatest skill: his passing. Karnowski averages almost two assists this season, a gaudy number for a 300-pounder. Karnowski played five games last year before bowing out due to back issues — he’s fully healthy as a redshirt senior, and he’s the anchor of a championship-level defense.
The one-offseason retool job wouldn’t be complete without a diaper dandy. Gonzaga has one of those, too. Zach Collins, the Bulldogs’ third big man, might be the most talented player on the roster.
Collins has a 30.6 player efficiency rating. He’s averaging 23.1 points, 13.1 rebounds and 3.8 blocks per 40 minutes — all of those figures pace Bulldog regulars. Collins is good enough to be the top option on an NCAA tournament team. Instead, he plays 17.2 minutes per game for Gonzaga. To classify this team as "loaded" would be an understatement.
This may be the Bulldogs’ first Final Four trip ever. The WCC may not be the SEC, Pac-12 or ACC. But rest assured: Gonzaga is not an underdog. Far from it. It didn’t use the Kentucky rebuilding model; it created a model that’s entirely its own.
The Bulldogs may win the championship. They may not. But if nothing else, programs around the country see how they did this. You’re not going to out-Kentucky Kentucky. There has to be another way.
Gonzaga may have found it. Champions? Maybe. Trend-setters? Absolutely.