As of Monday afternoon, a new name sat atop the latest NCAA men’s college basketball rankings, the lone undefeated team left in the land. But even at 22-0, does Gonzaga deserve to be ranked as the nation’s top team?
At first glance, it would seem foolish. The West Coast Conference annually lags in RPI ratings – per Ken Pomeroy, the WCC’s RPI is currently ranked 11th, the fourth time the league has finished in that spot since Pomeroy began ranking conferences at KenPom.com during the 2002 season. And unlike some seasons, in 2016-17 coach Mark Few struggled to put together a quality nonconference schedule. Only two opponents defeated by the Zags in nonconference play – Arizona and Florida – will likely make the NCAA tournament. Given those circumstances, how can one argue that Gonzaga deserves to be ranked ahead of juggernauts like Kansas (fresh off a win against Kentucky in Lexington) and Villanova (fresh off a win against Virginia)?
Well, the case looks something like this.
Talent on both sides of the ball
This is the best Bulldog team Few has ever assembled, and while it’s difficult to forecast if this squad has Final Four potential, don’t discount the Zags’ rise.
Gonzaga’s efficiency margin – the difference between offensive and defensive efficiency – is plus-0.33, the highest it has ever been, and there isn’t another team in Division I with that stark a gap (it’s even bigger in WCC play at plus-0.40). No other team is operating with such precision on both offense and defense, and a crucial element of that differential is the team’s overall defensive stinginess, which starts with a commitment to transition defense.
Gonzaga never attacks the glass with reckless abandon, posting an offensive rebounding rate of just 31.4 percent, which is Gonzaga’s second-lowest rate since 2002 (the first season for which KenPom has data). Instead of searching for second chances, the Zags have emphasized stopping the ball in transition. Since Johnathan Williams and Zach Collins (who only uses 42 percent of the team’s minutes) are the only two Zags who look to always grab offensive boards, the rest of the squad quickly flows back to prevent easy buckets. Per Hoop-Math.com, nearly 20 percent of the Gonzaga opponent’s field goals come in transition, but the team’s transition defensive effective field goal percentage is a stout 43.9 percent.
That defensive intensity trickles down into the squad’s halfcourt defense, which not only is challenging along the perimeter, but is also just as effective on two-point field goals. Gonzaga’s opponents are making a scant 41.4 percent of its twos, which is an astounding rate and one that clearly shows Gonzaga has defensive chops that rival any of the other high-majors seeking a claim on the nation’s top spot in the rankings.
Balance and depth
Przemek Karnowski is the only Bulldog who attempts more than 25 percent of Gonzaga’s shots. This is a team clearly built to withstand an offensive off night from one (or more) Bulldogs. Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris largely dominated the 2013 squad, which was awarded a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and fell to Wichita State. The same could be said for last season’s team, in which the offense flowed through Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis.
This year’s squad, features several players who are clear scoring talents, registering offensive ratings well over 100. If Few isn’t using a lineup of Nigel Williams-Goss, Josh Perkins, Jordan Mathews, Williams and Karnowski, a grouping that has played roughly a third of the team’s possessions the past five games, he tinkers with Silas Melson, Killian Tillie and Collins. The next five lineup combinations use between five and seven percent of possessions. And the drop-off isn’t that steep. Per Hooplens.com, a lineup with Melson and Collins (replacing Mathews and Karnowski), has an efficiency margin of plus-0.23.
Other top contenders don’t have that same sort of depth and balance. Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham dominate Kansas’s offense, which has been inverted this season to stress perimeter scoring, and freshman Josh Jackson has one of the nation’s highest usage rates. Kentucky’s Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox are the top two offensive options on a given possession, and while Villanova does have four players attempting more than 20 percent of the team’s shots, Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson are likely the ones looking to create in key situations.
Karnowski’s passing touch
One of the Bulldogs’ most significant shifts this season was the decision to run the offense from the post. The 7-foot-1 senior Karnowski has the second-highest assist rate on the team, and his decision-making, touch and a wealth of perimeter talent (38 percent from beyond the arc as a team) have enhanced the offense.
According to Synergy Sports, Gonzaga is scoring 1.44 points per Karnowski pass – no other Division I player passes out of the post more with as much efficiency. Bulldog cutters are converting a whopping 1.7 points per cut, and opponents have to either decide to single-cover Karnowski (a challenge, as he scores 1.2 points on the block) or double and hope the defense recovers quickly enough to challenge the shot attempt when he kicks out the ball. And since Few has enough shooters to space the perimeter – even Williams, a 6-9 big, has a soft outside touch – Karnowski has plenty of options.
The senior’s passing acumen is an underrated aspect of Gonzaga’s game plan, one that has never before existed on any of Few’s teams, and just another element of why this Bulldog squad deserves a top ranking and a chance to be special come March.
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