Why Gonzaga Didn’t Win the Tournament: They ran into a hot opponent.
Hello, Zag and basketball fans alike.
It’s been almost a month now since the NCAA tournament has ended, and now that we’ve all had a chance to throw away the tissues, burn our wrecked brackets (we’re looking at you, Baylor and Michigan St.), and collect the pieces of our broken hearts, it’s time to finally discuss how it all went wrong.
Now, this is a difficult thing for Zag fans to revisit, especially after the whirlwind of a season that we had just suffered through.
The beginning of the season honestly looked somewhat bleak, especially after the reign of Kevin Pangos came to an end the previous year. Early on in the season, the Zags were faced with a heartbreaking back injury from 7 foot 1, Polish center, Prezmek Karnowski, who was a staple in the Gonzaga offense. Some fans argue that Karnowski’s absence was a major factor in the upsets that the Zags experienced throughout the season. Others say that it was from the lack of leadership on the court, something that the budding point guard Josh Perkins appeared to struggle with early on. After suffering two losses from Saint Mary’s and an upset from the BYU Cougars, the Zags were faced with an all-or-nothing chance in the form of a WCC tournament. In order to get their ticket punched for the NCAA tourney, they had to win the WCC against rival Saint Mary’s who had beat the Zags twice already.
Well, they did it.
Perkins blossomed into a leading 3-point shooter, Sabonis thrived down below, Wiltjer continued to hit threes and McClellan became one of the best defensive players in the country. We swept past #6 Seton Hall and spanked #3 Utah. To Zag fans, a face-off against #10 Syracuse looked almost like a small bump in the road to the Elite 8 for the second year in a row. After the struggles the Zags had overcome throughout the season, a win against Syracuse looked do-able.
However, that was not exactly how it played out.
Unfortunately, after a nail-biting game of an epic back and forth, including runs from each team, Syracuse eventually came out on top in the final score of 60-63.
There were a few items on the list that the Orange had to check in order to cash in the win. One of which was the solidarity of their zone, a kind of defense that Gonzaga had yet to face-off against. The dense defense managed mostly in the paint, making it necessary for Gonzaga to rely more on their guards and outside shooters rather than Sabonis on the inside. Wiltjer responded well to the pressure and finished the game as the leading scorer with 23 points. Unfortunately, Wiltjer wasn’t enough to carry the team for the win. Coach Few, however, made a mysterious call by not having Eric McClellan on the floor when the final seconds ticked down. McClellan has a track record of fast footwork and flawless drives to the basket, and many Zag fans have argued that he could have benefited Gonzaga in their final possession.
The Zags walked away with higher field goal and 3-point percentages as well as more rebounds (a nod to Sabonis who finished the game with 17), but in the end, it was the turnovers that cost the Zags the game. Gonzaga ended the game with 19, while Syracuse kept steady at 9, which is below their season average of 12 per game.
Another trip to the Elite 8 would have been a cherry on top for the roller-coaster season that Zag fans had to endure (we can admit it, this wasn’t an easy season, you guys), but a Sweet 16 appearance is going to have to suffice. The 2016-2017 season looks uncertain seeing as how we’re losing four of our five starters. Seniors Wiltjer, Dranginis and McClellan are moving on and sophomore Domantas Sabonis has declared for the NBA draft. But with the rise of Perkins, the (likely) return of Karnowski, and the new transfers, Nigel Williams-Goss and Jeremy Jones, there’s a feeling of hope within all of the uncertainty. And if there’s anything Zag fans have learned from this season, it’s that there are few other teams that react better to pressure than the Gonzaga Bulldogs.