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Gonzaga as legit as ever

Gonzaga as legit as ever

Gonzaga as legit as ever
By Joe Nelson

Early season college basketball can be a bit tough to keep tabs on as there are so many teams, random scheduling, and a lot of shuffling in the rankings. Several familiar teams are towards the top of the rankings as well as a few upstarts with high expectations so far this year. One familiar team that is starting the year ranked much higher than usual and can be found already in the top 5 this season is Gonzaga, and the Bulldogs should be there to stay all season long.

The small university in Spokane is far past the days as a March Cinderella story and is a legitimate basketball powerhouse. The Bulldogs have made ten consecutive NCAA tournament appearances but have not been able to capture the March magic they had back in the underdog role when they made three consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances from 1999-2001, as a #10 seed twice including an Elite Eight trip in 1999, and as a #12 seed in 2001.

Since establishing itself as a prominent program the Bulldogs have taken on tough non-conference schedules early in the year and generally cruised to solid places in the national rankings with glowing conference records. It has been customary to see Gonzaga in the rankings, and unfortunately just as expected to see them bow out of the tournament before they are expected to. Gonzaga did make a Sweet Sixteen run as #3 seed in 2006 but each of the past two years has fallen in the first round. In 2005 as a #2 seed Gonzaga was knocked out in the second round and the committee may be hesitant to justify placing the Bulldogs that high again, but this year they may have no choice.

Normally Gonzaga loses a few tough non-conference games as they are forced to travel across the country and play in many unfriendly venues for teams to be willing to play them. Very rarely will a major conference team visit the 6,000 seat McCarthey Athletic Center. Gonzaga is 7-0 this season but not surprisingly the five major conference teams have all been in neutral site games or on the road. Gonzaga has several tough games in the weeks ahead and the WCC is much more than a one-team league so a perfect season is not likely, but this should be the best Gonzaga team in years.

Gonzaga deserves a lot of credit for its strong start but what looked like a murderer’s row of games has not been as tough as it sounds with a few programs rebuilding. In the last five games Gonzaga has wins over Oklahoma State, Maryland, Tennessee, Indiana, and Washington State but none of those teams appear as strong as they have been in recent seasons. Gonzaga did not just win those games however, most were blowouts and none of the games came at home. The closest margin of victory for Gonzaga was nine points over Tennessee, a team that is currently ranked #8 in the nation.

Gonzaga’s remaining schedule features more challenges, playing at Arizona, facing Connecticut, going to Utah, and then facing a re-match with Tennessee in Knoxville before starting the WCC season. Gonzaga will also play Memphis in February. There will likely be a few slips along the way but this looks like a team with the potential to put together a 25 win regular season, and with a strong conference tournament showing that should mean a potential #1 seed given the tough schedule faced. Gonzaga’s conference schedule will not be easy either, as St. Mary’s and San Diego should remain threats after recent tournament appearances and the overall depth of the league could be stronger with Santa Clara, San Francisco, and Portland looking improved.

Gonzaga lost three contributors from last year’s team with forward David Pendergraft averaging 8.7 points per game as the most glaring loss. Two seniors lead this team with NBA prospects in Guard Jeremy Pargo and Center Josh Heytvelt. Along with versatile sophomore Austin Daye, this could be the best roster Gonzaga has fielded in terms of overall talent. Daye and Heytvelt battled injuries last season but both have looked great in the early going so far this year. Matt Bouldin, Steven Gray, and Micah Downs provide consistent all around play and give Gonzaga a very strong top six. Gonzaga also has two 7-footers on the bench as well as two talented freshmen guards that could eventually contribute. In the early going Gonzaga’s personnel has shown great toughness as well as the ability to win with outside shooting.

Coach Mark Few is often missed in the grouping of the top coaches in the country but continuing the great success of this program after Dan Monson’s great tournament run in 1999 is an incredible accomplishment given the disadvantages the program has compared with larger conference teams. Gonzaga now continually gets top tier recruits and in his first nine seasons as head coach he is 236-60, the third best mark all time for a coach at the nine-year mark trailing only Roy Williams and Everett Case and his .797 win percentage is second best among active coaches only behind Williams. Few may not be a household name to the casual basketball fan yet but this could be the year that Gonzaga really takes it to the next level as a true national contender.

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