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Gonzaga looks the part
Mar. 21, 2015 10:50 am, Updated: Mar. 21, 2015 11:10 am
SEATTLE - The Gonzaga faithful filled KeyArena on Friday night during the Bulldogs' 86-76 win against North Dakota State. At first blush, it makes sense with the campus located within the same state.
But Gonzaga (33-2), which plays Iowa (22-11) in an NCAA round-of-32 game at 6:10 p.m. Sunday (TBS), hardly is a local squad. Its Spokane campus sits nearly 300 miles east of Seattle, which is like saying Iowa would have a home game in, say, Kansas City. So it applies, kind of.
Gonzaga has that reputation as a terrific regular-season squad that tends to play soft in the NCAA tournament. The ‘Zags have advanced to the round of 32 in each of the last seven years, but they've lost in those games in each of the last five years. But based on watching the Bulldogs against a hard-nosed Bison squad, I can tell you that this version is different. The Bulldogs have skill, experience, toughness and depth. At first blush, they fit the part.
Gonzaga almost reads as 'Godzilla” when you look at its offensive stats. Entering the NCAA tournament, the Bulldogs led the country in field-goal percentage (52.4) and points per possession (1.21), was fourth in 3-point percentage (40.8), fifth in assists per game (16.5) and 10th in scoring (79.1).
The tempo begins with senior guard Kevin Pangos, who ranks second nationally with a 3.7 assist-to-turnover ratio. Pangos is a four-time, first-team all-WCC player and has 317 career 3-pointers (#4equals3 is a slogan out here). Pangos averages 11.5 points and 5.0 assists and shoots 44.4 percent from 3-point range.
Then there's Kyle Wiltjer, one of the nation's best offensive players and an All-American candidate. This is his first year of eligibility after transferring from Kentucky, where he was part of an NCAA champion in 2012 and was named the SEC's sixth man of the year in 2013. Wiltjer, who stands 6-foot-10, didn't win the WCC player of the year (that award went to Pangos) but he was deserving of it. He averaged 16.7 points a game and shot 46.6 percent from 3-point range.
'I tell (Wiltjer) I love how competitive he is,” Pangos said, 'and that he just wants to win so badly, I can definitely relate to that. So to have guys on your team that think the same way as you and want to win as bad as you, you can't ask for anything more than that.”
Gonzaga rolls out senior guard Gary Bell (6-2), who picked up the WCC's top defender award. He puts up 8.2 points a game and boasts more than 200 career 3-pointers. His primary role is to defend the opponent's best offensive threat. Guard Byron Wesley (6-4) is a graduate transfer from USC after leading the Trojans in scoring last year. He scores 10.8 points.
'(Bell is) probably one of the top defenders in the nation,” said North Dakota State's Lawrence Alexander, who scored 19 points. 'If you ask him, he could probably tell you what I had for breakfast this morning. But give all credit to him. I kind of took the looks that I had. They were tough. But he's probably one of the top defenders in the nation.”
In the post Gonzaga has a tandem comparable to Iowa's lineup. Przemek Karnowski, a 7-1, 290-pound power player from Poland, puts up 11.0 points and 5.8 rebounds a game. Sometimes he plays side-by side with 6-10 freshman forward/center Domantas Sabonis (9.5 points, team-best 6.9 rebounds), the son of NBA all-star Arvydas Sabonis. Both are gifted at both ends of the court.
There's a ying/yang with this team, which one would expect based on their recent NCAA tournament history and - let's face it - the West Coast Conference isn't the Big Ten. As gifted offensively as the Bulldogs looked against North Dakota State, the Bison attacked relentlessly. Bench post player Dexter Werner, who looks more like a defensive tackle and less like a center, scored 22 against the Bulldogs. The 15th-seeded Bison hit 58.6 percent in the second half.
But Pangos was the calm hand. He played all 40 minutes and scored 18 points. He sank four 3-pointers and scored 15 points in the second half.
'I really thought that was the key,” North Dakota State David Richman said. 'To me, he's the engine that makes them go. He just lays in the weeds, takes care of the ball, makes the right pass, and then when he needs to make a big shot, he makes a big shot. He's the ultimate team guy. He's a winner.”
'I just found shots,” he said. 'My teammates found me, and I felt like they were great team shots. I wasn't thinking and predetermining what I was going to do, it just opened itself up and then I just stepped up and shot it. And so that's this team though. They took away, they doubled the post on the one because they wanted to take that away, and I got the open shot. And each and every game it might be someone different. That's what's great about this team.”
The Bulldogs also took advantage of North Dakota State's 13 turnovers, scoring 24 points.
Gonzaga challenged itself in non-conference play and beat Georgia, SMU, St. John's and UCLA all by at least seven points. The Bulldogs' only non-conference loss was by three points in overtime at Arizona. Gonzaga also lost to WCC foe and NCAA qualifier BYU but beat the Cougars twice.
Iowa played North Dakota State on Nov. 17 in Iowa City and won 87-56. Both teams played Pepperdine, which competes in Gonzaga's conference. Gonzaga swept Pepperdine 70-68 and 56-48 in the regular season and then won 79-61 in the WCC tournament, while Iowa beat the Waves 72-61.
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