Just who are the Zags this year?
01-30-18

Perhaps it’s the incessant drip and gray of winter that seems to underscore the downside. Or maybe it’s the inevitable, lingering hangover from a golden season when Gonzaga barged all the way to college basketball’s championship game.

Maybe they've just set a very high bar. They could be their neighbors to the south, Washington State, flailing to establish some sort of identity in the fourth year of a coaching regime.

Something doesn’t seem completely in sync with the Zags, even as they’re ranked 14th in the country, which is roughly where a lot of people pegged them in October. Even as they’re 19-4, which surely isn’t far from what their most beatific forecasters would have projected.

It’s been a fits-and-starts, herky-jerky season, the kind of year when a seemingly solid, nine-point second-half lead against Saint Mary's dissolves into defeat at home.

Let’s say up front that it all may be understandable, when several key pieces from that memorable ’16-17 campaign are no longer around, starting with rim-protector Przemek Karnowski and the engine room of the ship, Nigel Williams-Goss.

It’s just that this outfit has produced more head-scratching moments, more non sequiturs, than you might have expected. Consider:

-- The Zags held their three PK80 tournament opponents, Ohio State, Florida and Texas, to a combined .402 shooting percentage (all three are in the RPI top 50). Yet San Francisco comes to town the other night and shoots 51 percent. Villanova broke the Zags’ 64-game streak, dating back almost two years, of not allowing an opponent to shoot 50 percent from the floor, and now three more teams have done it -- including North Dakota. That North Dakota outfit, which had the Zags on the ropes in a December game in the Kennel, is now 7-14 and tied for 10th in the Big Sky.

-- If there was going to be a newcomer casting his name in lights, it was going to be Corey Kispert, the freshman from little King’s High in north Seattle. Instead, partly because Kispert dealt with a December ankle injury, that shining newcomer has been redshirt freshman Zach Norvell, who is scoring 12 points a game but more surprising, has a 63-to-31 assist-turnover ratio.

-- Jacob Larsen, the seven-foot freshman, played 24 minutes against powerful Villanova Dec. 5 and had 10 points and five rebounds. For some reason, he has played only 21 minutes in the last five games. It says here that if March is going to be remembered at all fondly around GU, he needs to be coaxed back into prominence.

-- Even the advanced metrics are at war over this team. KenPom has Gonzaga No. 7 (sixth in adjusted offense, 37th on defense), while GU is No. 57 in the RPI. ESPN’s BPI argues the Zags are No. 8, while KPI Sports -- one of the new metrics to be used by the NCAA selection committee -- has GU No. 55.

Coach Mark Few has bemoaned his team’s lack of consistency. At times, it seems a matter of focus, of good judgment, almost of common sense. In the last minutes of a nervous win over USF, guard Josh Perkins chooses to throw a backhand, wrap-around pass to 6-10 Killian Tillie on the perimeter, and puts the ball at Tillie’s ankles.

It’s not as though the sky is falling. The Zags boast the rarity of six players averaging double figures and in stretches are a sight to behold offensively. Step it up in February and early March, and there's a good chance Gonzaga will like its position in the bracket on Selection Sunday.

But numbers like .376 -- opponent three-point percentage (as opposed to .290 a year ago) -- are a screaming alarm that this team, on the wrong day in March, could be the first in a decade at Gonzaga to lose a first-round NCAA game. That three-point defense is statistically poorer than any in the 19-year streak of NCAA appearances.

Today, it’s still pretty much a blank canvas for the Zags, 2017-18. That could be both a good and bad thing.


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