Gonzaga punches NCAA ticket by answering biggest questions

Mark Few has a 16-year-old son who has never lived a year without his father’s team competing in the NCAA Tournament.

That run of good fortune is going to continue for another season.

Gonzaga is going dancing for its 18th straight season overall, as the Bulldogs defeated Saint Mary’s 85-75 in a phenomenally played West Coast Conference tournament final to secure the league’s automatic bid to the NCAAs. And boy, this season has been unlike any other in that streak.

Few’s team was ranked in the top 10 to start the season, but things turned sour early (or, at least as sour as things can turn for a team with 26 wins). Center Przemek Karnowski — who the Bulldogs coaching staff will swear up and down is possibly their most important player because of his two-way presence inside — was ruled out for the season after back surgery. The guards weren’t quite ready to play as expected. The losses mounted against quality opponents as the team struggled to close out games late.

That meant that despite the team’s clear talent and play on the floor, the team’s profile on paper would likely keep them out of the field of 68 on Selection Sunday if they didn’t win Tuesday’s WCC final. It was all or potentially nothing, and the Zags came through in a big way.

“I’ve never been a part of as courageous a team as these guys,” Few said in a televised postgame interview. “All is well in Zag-ville now.”

All is well, indeed, and for more reasons than just the relief of getting to go dancing. The final against Saint Mary’s went a long way toward answering two of the biggest aforementioned questions Gonzaga has raised about itself this season.

Domantas Sabonis had a good night against Saint Mary's. (USATSI)
Domantas Sabonis had a good night against Saint Mary’s. (USATSI)

Forwards Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer have been great throughout the season, but the guards have had a bit of a learning curve. Remember, Gonzaga had to replace terrific senior guards and four-year starters Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell after last season. But the thought was if anyone was going to be capable of doing that, it was this group, who is among the most highly touted to ever come through Spokane. Josh Perkins was regarded as a top-60 recruit. Eric McClellan was a prized transfer from Vanderbilt. Silas Melson is one of the best athletes to ever enter the program. Oh, and Kyle Dranginis brought the defense and shooting the team needed. But those guys didn’t have the easiest season. There were turnover issues with Perkins and McClellan; Melson and Dranginis had some shooting woes that didn’t get worked out until late in the year.

If you watched the final though, you wouldn’t believe any of those statements to be true. The backcourt could not have been better. Perkins had 16 points and five assists. McClellan had 20 points and two assists. Better yet, they only combined for three turnovers. Dranginis scored 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Melson provided energy. It was arguably that group’s best performance of the season when it was needed the most.

That bodes well for the Zags going forward, as does the fact that they finally closed out a game against a top-50 opponent. Prior to this win, Gonzaga was 0-5 against teams in the top 50 of the RPI, with all five losses coming by single digits in games the Bulldogs led in the second half. Despite a couple of Gaels runs to make it a one-possession game, the Bulldogs never ceded the lead in the second half of the final.

If these things hold up going forward, there isn’t going to be a single No. 5 or 6 seed that wants to see the Zags on the other other side of its draw in the opening round. Remember: Gonzaga has won at least one NCAA Tournament game in each of its last seven seasons.

That — along with its talent level — makes this team about as dangerous a double-digit seed as we’ve seen in a while in the NCAA Tournament.

Even if it took one heck of a circuitous route to get there.

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