Friday, December 08, 2023

At least one thing is the same as 2019

by STEVE CAMERON / Zags Tracker
| February 23, 2021 1:00 AM

So, at last I got around to cleaning up the loft.

That means reams of paper, and folders, and envelopes, and important records, and …

Old newspapers.

In the midst of this chore, I came across a copy of The Press from Dec. 24, 2019.

Just like today’s paper (REALLY like today), I had written a Zags Tracker.

The theme was about rankings, and I’d gone that route because Gonzaga had ascended to the No. 1 spot – courtesy of a 13-1 record that included some very tasty victories.

When I read through the story, I was totally amazed at how a scouting report on the 2019-20 Zags could be put on fast-forward and feel just as useful today.

Seriously, that team’s strengths – thinking in terms of the NCAA tournament – were the same as this year.

It was almost eerie.

I decided to let you read that Zags Tracker from 14 months ago.

Will you agree with me, or not?

For comparison, I updated names and stats to bring us into the current season.

What follows is a lighted updated version of that Zags Tracker.

Here we go…

December 24, 2019

February 23, 2021

THE ZAGS will sit at the top happily, thank you very much.

However …

Does being ranked No. 1 rather than No. 15 at Yuletide really make a massive difference as we come to the end of another West Coast Conference stroll?

Mark Few might be accused of excessive diplomacy here, but he doesn’t think that being the preseason No. 1, or carrying that ranking through a non-conference gauntlet (along with another WCC championship) actually means a hoot.

For all of Few’s protests, which are either overly humble or simply pragmatic, thousands of voters have ranked Gonzaga No. 1 in various polls – and millions more who have seen the Zags on TV agree with them.

NOTE:The 2019 version of this story referred to “millions more who have seen the Zags in person or on TV…”

Just imagining the Kennel full, and our planet without the ravages of Covid-19, makes me both sad and still hopeful.

Sorry, let’s continue …

Obviously, there are plenty of naysayers – in Waco, Texas, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, for instance -- who disagree with the current polls.

For the moment, though, they can be blithely ignored, so…

Let’s do that.

It’s fair to say, whatever your allegiance, that the Zags certainly deserve to be ranked somewhere up around the penthouse.

Both their results and their schedule make a hell of a case.

Now, perhaps it’s time that I add an opinion to this wildly subjective discussion.

WITH THE caveat that I have not seen every good team in America, and that I’ve watched several just once, I’m not afraid to say this…

I don’t think there is a better team than Gonzaga.

You’ll see all the reasoning for that statement shortly, but please remember that being the best team does not guarantee you a national championship.

Just ask Zach Collins. Or Nigel Williams-Goss.

They played on a Gonzaga team that had only North Carolina and some shameful officiating between them and the title.

The Zags were the better team, yet came home disappointed.

So, please, when I say that I think Gonzaga has all (or most) of the ingredients to win an NCAA championship this season, recall the weird traps that can appear without warning.

Sadly for that 2017 team (and others), the finale can’t be a seven-game showdown.

I just want to make it absolutely clear that when I say Gonzaga looks like the best team I’ve seen in quite some time, I’m not promising that they’ll win the NCAA tournament.

Yet they surely could.

ASSUMING good health and no Covid positives in March, Gonzaga should enter the NCAA shootout as the favorite.

At least that’s how the savvy Las Vegas bookmakers see it.

You don’t even have to take my word for it on a couple of key points.

Just look at the teams that have won it all in the past few years.

Almost all of them have had two things in common, while teams missing one of these ingredients have tended to go home earlier than you expected.

To win it all or even come close, you need maturity and you need great guards.

It’s terrific to have an ace in the middle (as the Zags do) but big men can’t win tournaments without help.

The truly special teams have guards who understand how to set the pace of a game, who understand how everyone is being defended, and yes, who can hit a big 3-pointer if you insist on double-teaming inside.

AND HERE they are…

The Zags’ Jalen Suggs, Joel Ayayi, Andrew Nembhard and Aaron Cook make something close to a perfect backcourt.

It’s good enough, in fact, that Few now has chosen to play three guards most of the time, using Corey Kispert at the power forward spot with the almost unstoppable Drew Timme ruling the paint.

All of the Gonzaga guards can defend (call Cook the specialist), they’re big, and they’re physical without being crazy about it.

Better yet, these guards create overall balance throughout the group, all of them able to pass swiftly for Timme down low – which almost always results in a bucket, or a quick pass out to Kispert behind the arc.

Now then…

You want maturity?

Kispert and Cook are seniors, Ayayi and Nembhard are juniors who have played huge minutes at the highest level, Timme is a sophomore who got tons of playing time behind Filip Petrusev last year – and the freshman wonderchild, Suggs, has already been penciled into some NBA lineups.

Then there are players like Anton Watson and Julian Strawther, who have specific roles when needed; for instance, the 6-8 Watson can play forward and also spell Timme at center.

TO TOP things off, there is just no selfishness at Gonzaga.

If you’re that kind of guy, you wouldn’t have been invited in the first place.

When it matters, the Zags spread the wealth, and even though this seems like a whopping statement, anyone in this lineup can score at crunch time.

There are four players averaging in double figures, with Nembhard at 9.4.

As ESPN’s Jay Bilas said: “When Joel Ayayi is your fourth option, you’ve really got a special team.”

As a team, they’re shooting a tick over 55 percent from the floor and 73 percent from the foul line.

Are there weaknesses?

If you have to pick one, it might be 3-point shooting – although the Zags are connecting at a 36 percent clip.

Only Kispert, though, scares teams with his 47 percent success rates.

The counter argument is that none of the regulars is sitting below 35 percent, and all of them seem to hit open 3-balls whenever necessary.

You wouldn’t be afraid to let any of them cut loose with a game on the line.

PUT IT this way…

If I were building a team to make it to the Final Four, these Zags are awfully close to the gang I’d put together.

Even with the strongest group of teams near the top that we’ve seen in recent years, I really think Gonzaga is the best.

They play scrappy, swarming defense, and NOBODY can get up and down the floor fast enough to beat them in a shootout.

The Zags have done everything else.

Now it’s time for the shining moment.

Kispert put it this way: “We want so much to do it for all the Zags who came before us.

“Gonzaga is a family, and we’re to going to fight to have that family celebration.”

Bottom line…

I believe they’re as good as they look.

No. 1 now can be No. 1 on the first Monday in April.


Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.

Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball which is published each Tuesday.

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