published Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Gonzaga has grown into Goliath

San Francisco's Frank Rogers, left, and Mark Tollefsen defend against Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk (13) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in San Francisco.
San Francisco's Frank Rogers, left, and Mark Tollefsen defend against Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk (13) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in San Francisco.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Having once helped lead Kansas to the 1993 Final Four as a player, University of San Francisco coach Rex Walters knows a thing or two about college basketball's biggest stage.

Said Walters after losing 71-61 to newly No. 3 Gonzaga on Saturday: "It was, unfortunately, men against boys. Physically, they're a Final Four-caliber team."

When you can count such rugged NBA veterans as Ronny Turiaf, Robert Sacre and Jeremy Pargo among your alumni, physical talent isn't often your shortcoming.

Yet despite winning or tying for 11 straight West Coast Conference crowns under coach Mark Few before last season, and posting 21 wins over teams ranked in the Associated Press's Top 25 over that span, the Bulldogs' (Zags is an unofficial nickname) NCAA tournament record has been far more ordinary.

After reaching the Elite Eight as the ultimate Cinderella story during the 1999 tourney under former coach Dan Monson, then advancing to the Sweet 16 under Few the next two years, Gonzaga has returned to the tourney's second week just twice more, arguably going from overachiever to underachiever.

Perhaps that's why sophomore guard Kevin Pangos said two weeks ago, "We don't relax for any game this year. We saw where Illinois beat (No. 1) Indiana. We can't let that happen to us."

Actually, Illinois shocking the Hoosiers likely will help the Zags come Selection Sunday since the Illini are one of only two schools to beat Gonzaga this season. The other blemish on its 25-2 season (12-0 in WCC play) was by a single point at Butler.

Still, when you think of the school's past, you tend to think of offensive stars from Adam Morrison to Dan Dickau to Pargo -- guys who could shoot, pass and dribble with the best of them.

These Bulldogs, however, growl loudest when the other team has the ball. While they can still score with anyone (51 percent from the field and 39 percent from behind the arc), the Zags are holding opponents to 39 percent from the floor and only 61 points a game while scoring at an average clip of nearly 79 points a game.

A single example of their defensive chops: BYU's Tyler Haws, who leads the WCC in scoring with more than 20 points a game and who had 42 against Virginia Tech, was held to a single point by Zags guard Gary Bell Jr.

"They sped [Haws] up and were really physical with him," BYU coach Dave Rose said afterward. "Every catch he made, it seemed to be in a spot where it was a little out of the rhythm he likes to be in."

The rhythm of the college season in general is about to move from ballroom to break dancing. Gonzaga has only four regular-season games left before the WCC tourney begins. Then the real tourney begins.

What makes these Zags seemingly more formidable than their predecessors certainly seems to hinge on their defensive desire.

Or as Pangos said, "Offense can be up and down. Defensively, if we can get that performance every single game, we are tough to beat."

But what makes it tough for their opponents' defense to succeed are the offensive skill sets of redshirt junior center Kelly Olynyk (17.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and senior forward Elias Harris (14.4, 7.2), long one of the nation's best-kept secrets.

"Between Harris and Olynyk ... we struggled with their size and how physical the game was," BYU's Rose said after a 20-point loss. "They're fantastic."

No one has struggled with the Zags more than the Big 12, which is 0-5 against Gonzaga this season, including losses by No. 13 Kansas State (68-52 in Seattle) and No. 14 Oklahoma State (69-68 at OSU).

Said K-State coach Bruce Weber after his team's loss: "That's about as good a defense as I've seen a Gonzaga team play."

This would appear to be the best overall basketball played by Gonzaga in the school's 125-year history.

Now the trick is for the Zags to party at the Big Dance like it's 1999 again.

"If you look at how we executed down the stretch at Butler (before Gonzaga lost on a buzzer-beater), we made play after play after play," Few said last week. "Same thing at Oklahoma State; same thing at Saint Mary's, and San Diego. We've been put in situations where these guys have been nails down the stretch."

And come March, it's always better to be nails than get nailed.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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