This isn’t their first rodeo.
Gonzaga knows exactly what it’s like to be the No. 1 team in the nation. And when it happened the first time back in 2013, the naysayers couldn’t wait to shake their heads and talk about strength of schedule and whole bunch of other numerologically based hoops hokum that sounds a little like one of those uncomfortable medical tests where you’re told not to eat the night before.
Today’s sports world is obsessed with all sorts of these crazy-insider stats that try to predict how a team will do when playing a road game on a Monday night, during a leap year, while in a state whose name ends in an “a.”
Everything has to be compared, quantified, processed and pasteurized.
But Monday’s top ranking by the Zags in both the AP and USA Today polls feels different. And not just here in Spokane.
Yeah, being the last unbeaten team is a big part of it. But it’s also because the numbers support it. Both the Washington Post and New York Times wrote stories Monday afternoon about why this Gonzaga team deserves its seat atop college basketball’s weekly throne. They made the case. The stats back it up.
Even elitist newspapers with obvious East Coast biases can see that the math adds up this year for the Bulldogs.
Yet they still aren’t seeing what we’re seeing. And being honest, it’s hard to spot until it’s pointed out to you. You know how when you learn a new word, and you swear you’ve never heard it before, then you hear it three or four times in the next day? It’s almost like magic.
Well, that’s a little like this team’s secret; it’s all you can look at every time the Zags take the court from the moment you’re told about it. You can’t unlearn it.
And here it is …
These guys really like each other. They’re friends who care about each other. They play as a team. And that’s because they are a team … in the truest sense.
It’s called chemistry. And this year’s edition of the Zags have it by the bucketloads.
It is exactly the sort of intangible that statisticians and those who love measurability really hate.
You see, it’s hard to see heart in a box score. And it’s downright impossible to see brotherhood in an excel spreadsheet. Unless you know what you’re looking for.
Earlier in the season, after another easy win at the Kennel, Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth explained the magic that was unfolding in front of us.
Well, he did it in his “Andy Griffith of major college basketball” kinda way. And for him, the numbers show more than just the new No. 1 team in the nation – they show character.
“Look at how they always throw one more pass, or are always looking to see if their teammate has a better shot,” he says, looking at, ironically, that night’s box score. “Look at all of the assists that these guys are getting.”
Roth pauses for a second, trying to find the right words, trying to explain what the numbers tell him.
“This is such a special group and you can see it just by the way they play together. When they’re together, you can see the chemistry and camaraderie.”
What does chemistry look like in a basketball box score?
Through 22 games, seven different players have been Gonzaga’s leading scorer.
Yes, you see the gentle giant who might also be the best seven-foot point guard in the world. There’s a junior transfer guard who waited patiently for more than a year to get to wear this team’s jersey. And a freshman who’s taller than the Golden Arches.
And all of those assists that Roth marvels at?
This team is averaging close to 17 a game, which – as you might have guessed – is more than most Gonzaga teams. Seven times this season, the Bulldogs have had 20 or more.
That’s impressive, but it has to be more than that.
How does a team loaded with transfers and freshmen become so close so quickly, when teams that grow up together don’t? That’s where magic disguised as a seemingly unimportant moment explains what science and stats can’t.
After the Pepperdine game, Przemek Karnowski hinted at this.
“During the winter break when everybody left, all the students left, we were together and hanging out for a month together,” he said. “I thought that really helped us gel together.”
Then he mentioned that back in September, the team went on a retreat together in North Idaho. Yes, there were all sorts of team-building activities. There’s even a photo of them all together. Some are smiling. Some look tough. Karnowski’s carrying an ax in those super-soft hands of his.
Each player wrote about their leadership philosophy.
Not long after that, McDonald’s All-American Zach Collins posted something on Twitter that isn’t quite what you’d expect from one of the most highly prized recruits in Gonzaga history.
“My leadership philosophy is disregarding my own well being for the well being of my teammates, family members, and friends.”
And he’s done that. The whole team has.
Throughout the season, coach Mark Few has made overtones about this. “We’ve had a lot of teams that were close, but the way this team came together, has functioned together so quickly, is impressive,” Few said after the San Diego game.
On Monday, with sports fans around the nation looking at the campus of small Jesuit university, whose name most people mispronounce, Few said all of the things you would expect him to say. Then in the middle of his pitch-perfect coachspeak, he nailed why this team is so special.
“They’ve done a wonderful job of sharing, and really embracing the balance we have, which isn’t easy to do,” he said. “Being selfish is kind of one of those traits that all humans have.”
Just not this year’s Zags.
Then again, this isn’t their first rodeo.
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