During Gonzaga’s second-half-comeback-turned-demolition of the Creighton Bluejays I tweeted this:
Individually and as a team this year's Zags are every bit as talented, athletic and skilled as last year's team that made the national championship.— Will Maupin (@WillsWCCblog) December 2, 2017
It got me thinking, just how does this year’s team compare to last year’s? So, I broke it down into five key areas — leadership, balance, athleticism, efficiency, and newcomers — to see how this squad measures up.
It’s a lot closer than expected, folks.
Heading into this season, the knock on Gonzaga was essentially that it lost so many guys that it couldn’t possibly be as good this year.
What we’ve seen so far is that, yeah, they lost a lot of guys. But this is Gonzaga and the Zags always have guys. But they don’t have Nigel Williams-Goss (16.8 ppg) and Przemek Karnowski (12.2 ppg). Those were Gonzaga’s two leading scorers, two best leaders, and two biggest names.
Mark Few lauded Williams-Goss’s leadership all season long. And on a team full of freshmen and transfers, Karnowski’s presence as a fifth-year senior was invaluable. Not to mention that Karnowski won the Kareem Abdul Jabbar award, given to the nation’s best center, and Williams-Goss finished fifth in Ken Pomeroy’s player of the year rankings.
If there’s an Achilles’ heel on this team, it’s this hard to find and impossible to measure quality of leadership.
Advantage: Last season
There was something of an illusion of depth on last year’s Gonzaga team, even though Mark Few rode just an eight-man rotation to the national championship game. That illusion was because all eight of those guys were legit. But after those eight, there wasn’t a player trusted with meaningful minutes in competitive games. The drop off in minutes per game between players eight and nine last year was 12.3 to 4.6, and neither played in all 39 of Gonzaga’s games.
This season, Few has gone a bit deeper into his bench and runs a nine-man rotation. Five of those players have led Gonzaga in scoring over the team’s first eight games, and two of those five are reserves.
Senior forward Johnathan Williams, who was named to the preseason Wooden Award watch list and was expected to be the Zags’ best player, leads the team with 15.9 points per game. Sophomore sensation Rui Hachimura, who has led the team in scoring on two occasions this season, ranks seventh with 9.8 points per game. Round to the nearest whole number and Gonzaga’s got seven guys who put up double-digits every game.
Mark Few doesn’t have a role player on his roster until you get to freshman center Jacob Larsen (11.3 mpg), who scored 14 points against Incarnate Word, and Jeremy Jones (10.6 mpg).
Advantage: This season
The Zags wasted no time showing off their athleticism this season. Their first points of the year came via a Corey Kispert dunk, and the Zags have been attacking the rim ever since. With multiple dunks in every game except against Ohio State, and 29 total by my count, this year’s squad has been fun to watch.
Sure, Karnowski was good for a lot of dunks over his career. But, and no disrespect to the NCAA’s all-time wins leader, they weren’t exactly the highlight-reel stuff we’re seeing this season.
Williams is a beast, Killian Tillie’s “volleyball athleticism” will be mentioned by the commentators in every single game this year, Hachimura is long and can jump out of the gym, and Kispert is built like a running back.
These aren’t mid-major athletes. There are more NBA prospects in Gonzaga’s rotation this season than ever before. After the PK80, an event loaded with prospects and crawling with scouts, CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander did a nice write-up of Gonzaga’s talent.
Advantage: This season
This one is a no-brainer. There’s almost no way Gonzaga will improve upon last season. If only because last year’s Zags were one of the most efficient teams of the 21st century. Gonzaga was, by a solid margin, the No. 1 team in KenPom last year. Their adjusted efficiency margin of +32.05 ranks 14th all time in the KenPom era (dating from the 2001-02 season).
So far this year, the Zags have posted a +22.64 adjusted efficiency margin, which is respectable and good for 12th-best in the nation as of this writing.
This year’s team has taken a major step backwards in three-point percentage defense. Last year’s squad ranked second in the nation and held teams to 29 percent from deep. Teams are shooting 38.7 percent from downtown against Gonzaga this year.
Advantage: Last season
Last season, it was a trio of upperclassmen who transferred from power conference teams — Williams-Goss (Washington), Jordan Mathews (Cal), and Williams (Missouri). Oh yeah, there was also Zach Collins, the program’s first McDonald’s all-American, who ended up being a lottery pick.
Williams-Goss went in the second round of the NBA Draft, Mathews graduated and Williams is back for his senior season.
There are no transfers eligible this season, just freshmen. And while they may lack the experience of last year’s newcomers, they aren’t any less talented.
Kispert (10.4 ppg) chose Gonzaga over Notre Dame and Virginia. Zach Norvell Jr. (10.0 ppg) was named to the preseason Erving Award watch list and was my pick to be WCC Newcomer of the Year, though Kispert seems more likely at this point. And finally there’s Jacob Larsen, Gonzaga’s latest international big man.
Eight games into last season, Gonzaga’s newcomers were a lot farther along in their careers than this year’s crop. The freshmen have been good so far, but it’s just too soon to tell what their overall impact is going to be.
Advantage: Last season (for now)