January 30, 2015

Called Out: ESPNU's Corey Alexander, A Celebration of the Zag Floor General

In defending Stanford point guard Chasson Randle for being a shoot-first point guard, ESPNU announcer, and former UVA point guard Cory Alexander said:

"The role of the pass-first point guard is dead."

If you're a true basketball connoisseur, you know this is a bone-headed statement.  The idea of a shoot-first point guard strains logic.  A shoot-first point guard is a shooting guard, and so there would just be two shooting guards in your line-up, with one designated with the arbitrary task of bringing the ball past mid court.  With two shoot guards, and nobody to help the bigs run plays, one team becomes two, and there's no chemistry. 

Alexander was covering the Stanford @ U Dub game with Kanoa Leahey.  It was U Dub's first game without the NCAA's number 1 shot blocker Robert Upshaw (4.4/game), a guy who until now had more blocks than any other PAC12 team combined.  Alexander's only redemption was late in the second half when he said "[b]y the way, get the Sonics back to Seattle."  The glaring irony of that statement was that the Sonics were successful largely because they had point guard Gary Payton racking up assists feeding power forward Shawn Kemp and bad-hair specialist Detlef Schrempf.

Coach George Karl looks on, after telling
Schrempf to get rid of the flat top.
What does this have to do with the Zags????
Kevin Pangos is the quintessential pass-first point guard, and any true Zagaholic will defend that definition of the position.  Pangos fuels the Zags high-IQ offense with one of D1's best assist/turnover ratios (does anyone have exact figures and rank?  If so, please comment).

The Success of a "Floor General" over a "Combo Guard"
Not only that, Coach Mark Few teaches a pass-first point guard offense.
Exhibit A:  When David Stockton was a senior off the bench, Coach Few would pull Gary Bell Jr. within a few minutes of the tip, move Pangos to the 2, and put Stockton at the 1.  Pangos would set back picks and knock down threes, and Stockton would thread passes inside and rotate along the baseline.  Starter or not, that lineup constituted the majority of the minutes.  Pangos' points average before conference play this season tanked exactly because Coach Few didn't have Stockton to turn to, and he had Pangos passing.  It only turned at BYU December 27th when Przemek Karnowski got gassed working the post in the second half, and Coach few gave firing orders to Pangos and Bell Jr to stretch the defense.

Pangos, Stockton, and Angel Nunez celebrate the
2014 WCC Tournament quarterfinals.
Exhibit B:  Coach Few makes sure his guys know their roles.  It's always fun when a player steps out of their role and does something positive.  Karnowski drained an NBA-range three on an in-bounds mistakenly thinking the shot clock was lean when there was really 15 seconds left.  But that doesn't mean Coach Few is going to start running high screens or kick outs for the big man. 
Coach Few's point guard philosophy is no different.  Coach Few publically reprimanded Stockton after Stockton blocked Anson Winder's lay-up in the WCC tournament championship game.
5'11" Stockton blocks Winder's lay-up. 

With Stockton sitting at his side for the post-game press conference after a convincing win to take the conference title and tournament auto-bid, Coach Few said:
"I don't think we need to be encouraging him out in the media.  We like
 our 5'6" guys to strip guys and to take charges."*
The Pass-First Point Guard is Not Dead
Not only is it alive, it's the second critical component of the best way to win titles (the first being a coach who has the team's respect).  Rarely has there been a successful team that doesn't have a heady floor general selflessly catalyzing the team's offense by rewarding good on and off ball movement with open looks and buckets.  It's the difference between a chemistriless, Kyrie Irving losing to the Utah Jazz without recording a single assist, and a Tony Parker-led Spurs team who left shoe deals and sex appeal at the door to systematically lock down on the league, winning the 2014 finals 4-1.
There's a reason Alexander is talking into a mic and not playing.  He should recognize that and stick to calling games, not his opinions.  To the Delon Wrights, Melo Trimbles, and TJ McConnells ignore the noise of selfish basketball, listen to your coaches, and we'll continue jealously marveling at your careers.
*Stockton is listed as 5'11".  He's not.  I'm 5'11" and I met him at the old bookstore before the COG was knocked down.  I had a few inches on him.  But as Sam Dower Jr. pointed out, Coach Few's 5'6" assessment was definitely unfair.

January 29, 2015

Kevin Pangos Hair Tweets

Enjoy this funny vid w/ Pangos responding to tweets about his hair. He has grown it out and it's longer than it has been in his first 3 seasons. Hey, if he likes it, great. If it helps him play better, I'm REALLY all for it!

Oh, and he set the record at Gonzaga tonight for all time three pointers made in a career, as far as I'm concerned, he's earned the right to wear a wig if he wants, lol!

Preview: Gonzaga vs Portland in the Kennel

Third up in this four game home-stand for the Zags are Coach Reveno's Portland Pilots. Tip-off is 6 p.m. (PST) tonight in the Kennel.

The Pilots are currently in a bit if a slide. Losers of six of their last eight games. Their record now stands at 12-9 while being just 3-6 in WCC play. Portland is a fairly deep team, with 7 players ave. at least 6 ppg. Their offense is scoring a respectable 72.5 ppg, they hit over 72% from the line, and 38.4 from three.

Portland has a plethora of bigs and it will be interesting in seeing how they match up with Gonzaga's. The biggest threat will be 6'11 senior center Thomas van der Mars. He is scoring approx. 11 ppg and grabbing eight rebounds. He also leads the team in blocks with 25. Next up is  6'10 250 lb senior Volodymyr Gerun who is ave. 8.7 ppg along with 5.8 rebounds and 21 blocks.

Two guards to watch for are 5'11 sophomore Alec Wintering, who leads the team in scoring 13.2 ppg and blisters the nets from deep at .511. He will probably be MVP of this team. Then they have 6'5 senior Kevin Bailey, who chips in 13.1 ppg and rarely misses from the free throw line, hitting .800.

Portland is doing well offensively but where they've been struggling of late is defensively. Although they have size, depth, good guards, and a stable full of bigs, they are simply not getting it done. They've given up 74 or more points in 6 of their last eight games.

The #3 ranked  Zags come into tonight's game with a 20-1 record and a 13 game winning streak. They also lead the nation in field goal percentage at .533. Gonzaga also boasts the longest home winning streak in the nation at 36 games. Additionally, the defense has been especially tough lately, holding five of it's last six opponents to under 60 points.

The Pilots are simply over-matched in this one. The Zags are on a roll and playing their best ball of the season. They have superior talent, senior leadership, are deeper, and ave. almost 82 ppg. I cannot see them losing at home. The line on the game currently stands at -22. We might not get quite there, but anything less than a 15 point win would surprise me.

Lastly, I wouldn't miss this game for the world. It will be a magical night as Kevin Pangos will undoubtedly set the all-time record at Gonzaga for three pointers made. He only needs one...Swish!!~

January 26, 2015

M3333LSON!!! Zags Destroy Pacific 91-60 (New and Improved with ZagSlam Honors)

Silas Melson brought some freshman swagger off the bench, taking 3s he had no business taking, and KNOCKING. THEM. DOWN.  He went 4/7 from the three line, scoring all 12 of his points from range.  A little perspective: the freshman went .571 from deep, when the whole team went .600 from the field.  Along with his bouncy step, and downright fun dunks, he's turning out to be a great Zag in the making.

Melson knocking down one of his four (of 7) threes.

Most everyone had a positive game, including third-string Connor Griffin who might get ZagSlam honors if I can find the video.

UPDATE: I found the video in slow motion, courtesy of some guy named John Mantello sitting on the baseline.  Angel Nunez made a heads up pass at close range, then Griffin finished strong with the determination of a sophomore who didn't want to be embarrassed after he realized he was committed to the dunk.  He ultimately did the embarrassing.  ZAGSLAMMED: Pacific.

Sabonis Blues

The only person who regressed a bit was Domantas Sabonis.  His productivity was still very high (10 and 8 on 3/4 FG), but he picked up 3 fouls in 23 minutes of very heated play.  A common theme in my coverage of Sabonis since the Arizona game is that he's an athletic beast, but he's also very hot-headed.  He plays aggressive to the basket, which is good, but it also means a lot of contact, especially when defenses resort to contact for want of better defensive footwork.

This means he gets fouled... a lot.  That's the life of a really productive post player.  When defenses can't figure out how to stop you, they foul you hard.  Przemek Karnowski knows this all too well.  But when the refs are allowing contact, Sabonis starts taking it out on his man, and his man (if he's smart enough to realize it) starts to get under his skin.  Pacific's bench forward Jacob Lampkin saw minutes for precisely this reason, playing 24 minutes to Sabonis' 23, when Lampkin averages less than 18.

Sabonis pulling down a board with Lampkin fighting for it.  The two
had to be separated after a little youthful grandstanding.

You may ask what's wrong with a little contact?  Especially when he's still producing?  Actually nothing if it's against a WCC softy like Pacific.  But when we get to real competition, two things:

1.   Fouls = Points: Good teams hit free throws, and in a close game, an unnecessary foul is a game-decider if it sends a close game into the bonus or double-bonus, or worse hands over an and-1.  A derivative is that we need Sabonis' physical presence and heady post play to beat good teams, so he needs to stay out of foul trouble, and stay on the floor.

2.   One Hot Head Heats the Team: Sabonis boiled over when Lampkin tied up the ball on a rebound.  A bit of post-whistle writhing for the ball and a back-hand to the chest and the refs finally stepped in and separated the two.  But it didn't end there.  Gary Bell Jr. (13, 2, 2 on 5/7 in 23 minutes) gave Lampkin a chest bump.  Nobody saw it that time, and I like that our guys feel enough brotherhood to back each other up,  but it could prove to be a dangerous trend.  It gets valuable guys like Bell Jr. (in this case a perimeter scorer and our top defensive guard) teed up.  Remember that Bell Jr. was a key player in big wins like our tournament game over Oklahoma State where he was a defensive lock on Marcus Smart.  Sabonis' hot head may have nuanced but critical consequences, and he will hopefully mature a bit before we see any real damage.

Sabonis' testosterone level was maturing quickly in the last few games, and his game is already there, with nowhere to go but up.  This was probably just a hick-up the progress.  Getting hacked is part of the life of a go getta, big man.  Keep cool and play your game.

The Positives

... And there were a lot.  Aside from the 31-point devastation we sent Pacific home with, the Zags showed some positive signs that will translate to wins against meaningful competition.  First, we played a very balanced game, scoring 45 points in the first half, and 46 points in the second.  This is the stuff of a machine-like offense, even John Calipari, running his hailed "platoon system" of fresh legs hasn't been able to achieve.

Box Score courtesy of ESPN.com98

Second, Senior Kevin Pangos is setting some assists and three-point records to decorate an already special career.

Pangos on the Verge of History

Pangos tied the record for all-time 3 pointers by a Zag, his next 3 setting it.  He attempted a few more, each time getting the crowd screaming and on their feet, but failed to connect.  With a sub-30 point lead in hand, Coach Mark Few sat him with time remaining, ignoring Zombie Nation's chanting "we want Kevin," so that they could witness the record.  The next two games are at home against Portland, then Memphis, so it's inevitable and fitting that he'll set the record in the Kennel.  Watch this Thursday (January 29th) to hopefully witness it.

Pangos and his really great hair mercilessly beating Pacific.

Last, pinch yourself.  The Zags we love so much are on track for a 30-1 regular season.  We still have a stubborn Santa Clara team and the Brad Waldo-led Gaels to play on the road, but either way, this is a really special Zags team.  Don't let it pass you by.

January 22, 2015

Pangos Breaks Ankles, Records in Win over LMU: 72-55

There's a reason why they call it the West COAST Conference.  The Zags can coast through a number of the games, and this was one of them.  This one was largely a snoozer, and there wasn't much basketball mechanics to report on.  So here are some bullet points on the notables…

Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak was on hand to peep the talent.

Either Kupchak likes the Zags, having signed
Robert Sacre and Elias Harris in the past, or there
were more fans there than at Staples.

ZagSlammed: LMU

A great transition play and a heads-up pass by Kevin Pangos hands our second ZagSlam honors to Domantas Sabonis.  In a way it trivializes some swift maturing in the true freshman, as he showed some composure in the post under pressure… but his slam was plain old fun down the lane, so enjoy:

(sidenote, please forgive me for the amateurish youtube clip.  Root Sports doesn't make highlights available like ESPN so this is the best I can do for you)

Pangos to Sabonis to Rim

Add Pangos to the Morrison, Dickau List

Kevin Pangos took 5th place honors for all time Zag assists, and is 6 3-pointers away from being the in first all time Zag in 3 balls.  Each of those alone is a monumental achievement.  Add that he has one of the best assist/turnover ratios in D1 ball, and  the statistics show he's a record-setting playmaker and a scorer.

Zags Playing Fundamental Ball

20 assists on 24 field goals.  I'll let that sink in before I ramble on.  It wasn't enough that Pangos is posting historic assists numbers, or that he's a leader in D1 assist/turnover ratio.  The team is moving the ball, making the proverbial "extra pass."  It's not as if we need to make the extra pass either.  Ignoring the free throw shooting from the Pepperdine game, the Zags shoot well.  The team is getting assists because it's better basketball.  If this is a habit, it will be a habit that minimizes the margin of error come march, it breaks down defenses, and it gets Ws.

January 20, 2015

Gonzaga vs St. Mary's- Another Battle for 1st Place

Here we go! Another huge game against St. Mary's, our nemesis rival. This is always the most anticipated game of the year and the students are camped out, freezing to death in the cccold, in order to get the best seats for the game.

It seems that for years now the battle at the top of the WCC comes down to Gonzaga and St. Mary's. This season is no different. The first of our two regular season clashes will be played at home in the Kennel. This will provide us with an advantage, as it will be played in front of what the players have become accustomed to- a raucous, sold out crowd. Oh, and in the 10 years since it's opening, Gonzaga is 142-8 all time at home.

It was supposed to be a down year for St. Mary's but coach Randy Bennett seems to put an excellent team together every year. Surprisingly enough, SMC comes into this game with a record of 15-3 while being unbeaten and tied on top of the WCC with the Zags, both at 7-0. They are also on a 9 game winning streak and just finished polishing off BYU 82-77.

SMC's front-court is strong. They have senior experience, size and athleticism. Led by senior big man, Brad Waldow, who was just awarded WCC Player of the Week. He went 21-28 and hit .750 while scoring 49 points. Waldow also captured 20 rebounds for the week, including dropping 24 points vs BYU. He will give Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski a tough battle down low.

Also stepping up for SMC of late is senior 6'7 F Garrett Jackson, who poured in 20 points vs BYU and didn't miss from three. These Gaels can rebound too, as they lead the WCC at approx. plus 10 boards per game.  Additionally, Waldow leads the WCC, hauling in an ave. of 10 per game. SMC's back-court is lead by 6'2 senior Kerry Carter, who's popping in 14 ppg while torching the nets from deep at .414.

Both teams have size, depth, and experience. SMC has a very good front-court but the Zags have a better one. Karnowski has had Waldows number in past match-ups and I look for that to continue. Also, the one, two, three, punch of Karnowski, Wiltjer & Sabonis, is simply too much for any WCC team to handle.

Our veteran back-court of Pangos & Bell will be superior to St. Mary's, especially in the Kennel where Pangos rarely misses from deep. Also, our wings Melson, Dranginis & Wesley are a notch above anything SMC can put on the floor.

This game is for first place in the WCC. Both teams are undefeated and on paper it looks fairly even. But, SMC has had a fairly light schedule so far and I don't see any marquee wins. So, although they come in with a lofty 15-3 record, they may not be as good as their record indicates.

With this game being played in the Kennel, where Gonzaga rarely loses, I look for the Zags to set the tone early, get ahead, and stay ahead. I can't imagine seniors Pangos & Bell letting this one get away. Perhaps the Zags will cruise to a fairly comfortable 12-15 point win, but we'll soon see.


January 17, 2015

RECAP: Zags over Pepperdine 78-76


Zags - 14/33 or .424
Kyle Wiltjer - 6/7 .857
Zags minus Wiltjer - 8/26 or .308

That's right, 31% from charity land (and Przemek Karnowski only attempted 3 for 1/3 so don't blame him).

Had we made more early, P'dine wouldn't have been breathing down our necks down the stretch.  Had we made more in the closing seconds, the Zags wouldn't be giving their fans early on-set heartburn and earning "overrated!" chants.

Had we… but we didn't, and thousands of TV sets endured unjustified abuse as Zag Nation (celebrating National Gonzaga Day the January 31st) yelled at their TVs.  Free throws were a difference-maker in Arizona.  Just like that game, it was our shooters who were missing.  Pangos, Wesley, Dranginis.  Teams in the top 5 cannot be lacking skills as fundamental as free-throw shooting.

But we closed out for the W, and our #3 AP ranking is safe for now.

Bigs Played with Poise

Domantas Sabonis played much more confidence and calm, finishing big plays under pressure in the post.  He went 18-12-1 on 9/9 from the field.  Sabonis came into the lineup with immediate talent, but he was susceptible to getting flustered if a defense pressured him or the refs allowed contact.  That didn't happen tonight.  He took the bumps, made the fakes, and created clear paths to the rim.  Even with defensive post presence Stacy Davis, Sabonis only had 1 turnover in 31 minutes of (very efficient) play.  The true freshman is maturing quick, and with plenty of eligibility left, he's shaping up to a long-term asset for the Zags.

How do you say "GTFO with that trash D," in Lithuanian?

Kyle Wiltjer had an even more efficient game, posting 24-8-4-1-1 (points, boards, assists, steals, blocks) on 8/16 from the field, 2/3 for the promise land, and 6/7 from the line.  He did all that in 28 minutes and NO TURNOVERS!!!  He's really earning his spot on the Wooden Award Top 25 Midseason List.

The stat sheet isn't the only place he impressed.  He put together quite the highlight reel.  His threes were from around the pro line.  Having range against Pepperdine is critical because use one of the nation's best defenses against the 3-point shot (something ESPN never fails to remind everyone of) to force the ball inside, and then use their bigs to defend inside.  That's a long-winded way of saying that stretching Pepperdine's defense is a challenge.  Kyle Wiltjer's range combined with his high-altitude shot release is exactly what forces a great perimeter defense to take the extra step out to pro range, giving the inside more room to work.  But the Kyle show didn't end there.  He took an and-1 on a fast-break lay-up alley oop from Kevin Pangos.  He also put together a string of off-balance fade-away bank shots, the stuff of veteran pro players.  The only place he could improve is defensively.  He has great positioning, and that's what earns him blocks and steals, but he's missing a bit of a physical intimidation factor.  It's probably no more than a bit of gym time.


Pepperdine is the Real Deal

Pepperdine has put together an above average record on a mediocre schedule.  Their non-conference record is rather underwhelming, but they went into the Marriott Center, agitated everyone but Kyle Collinsworth, and never trailed through to the end of regulation.  Their success comes largely thanks to a stifling perimeter defense, and rising star Stacy Davis who has a year left to develop, and use as a recruiting token.  They need to perform better when they visit St. Mary's but either way they will make a bit of noise in Vegas come conference tournament time.

Are the Zags Overrated?

No.  Pepperdine fans took the liberty of pointing out that an unranked mid-major was giving the #3 Zags reason to panic by chanting "overrated!"  But basketball doesn't work that way, especially Zags basketball.  By that logic, Arizona and Pepperdine are similar teams, because we held the lead until the very end of regulation in that game too.  What's really happening is the Zags are playing up, or down to their competition.  It happened in Provo when we exploded out of the gates, then let the Cougars tie it up (on a four-guard lineup) and actually hold a lead for a while before making some changes and winning by 7.  So is it something to worry about?  In the sense that it's a bad habit, yes.  But no, it doesn't make us overrated because we struggled with Pepperdine the same way we did with Arizona.


January 14, 2015

Pre-game Report: Pepperdine

Coming into the start of WCC play, not many had the Pepperdine road game circled on their calendars. However, after a 4-1 start, including a commanding win at BYU, Pepperdine has emerged as a team not to be overlooked and legitimate threat in the West Coast conference. The Waves stifled BYU's high octane offence only one week ago to steal a win against a heavily favoured opponent, and will look to repeat that performance tomorrow night versus the Zags.

It all starts on the defensive end for the Waves, who rank 1st overall nationally in opponent three point percentage and 48th in opponents points per game. A scrappy, well coached defensive squad, Pepperdine does an excellent job taking away easy looks. Luckily, despite their overall defensive strength, Pepperdine has a clear weakness inside. They lack the size to match up with Karnowski, Wiltjer, and Sabonis so look for Gonzaga to pound it down low early and often. As the game goes on, we should hopefully see some looks opening up for our shooters that the Waves typically do an outstanding job in taking away.

Junior power forward, Stacy Davis, is a bonafide stud and an All-WCC talent for Pepperdine. An extremely versatile player, capable of playing inside and out, Davis presents a real match up problem for Gonzaga's front court. His quickness will make it difficult for Wiltjer to stay with him so, depending on line-ups, don't be surprised to see Wesley get a turn guarding him. He's without a doubt Pepperdine's go to guy and, make no mistake, is capable of hurting the Zags badly in this one. Keeping him around his average is crucial in avoiding the upset.

While keeping Davis in check in priority number one, there is plenty of other talent on the squad with the ability to cause some damage. 6'7 forward, Jett Raines, is second on the team in scoring and makes up for his lack of height with superior quickness and athletic ability. Raines can do some damage from outside and has a face up game that is hard to contain, but hopefully the Zags size and length down low can help make things more difficult than he's used to. What Pepperdine's front court lacks in depth, it makes up for with its back court depth.  Pepperdine sports a solid 4 man back court rotation that's full of young talent. Jeremy Major, Shawn Olden, Atif Russell, and Amadi Udenyi all average between 10 and 6 points a piece, with any one of them capable of going off on any given night. The main emphasis of their guards is on the defensive end though, as Pangos, Bell, and Wesley will surely be hounded all game long. The ability of our guards to handle the constant pressure (Good thing we have 3 seniors starting!) will be a huge factor in dictating the outcome of this contest.

An unexpected but welcome additional challenge to the WCC schedule, Pepperdine should be a fun and closely contested battle. Road games with defensively oriented teams who present odd match up problems on the offensive end are usually a recipe for disaster. However, as bad as Davis can give it to our frontcourt, we should return it twofold. And as good a defensive group as Pepperdine is, they haven't faced a back court as experienced as Gonzaga's before. This game will be won on the inside for Gonzaga. Karnowski is the X-factor in this one, and should have a monster game.

Prediction: Gonzaga 73  Pepperdine 62

Highlights: David Stockton (28 points) vs. the Spurs, 1/11/2015

Former Gonzaga star David Stockton is tearing it up for the Reno Bighorns in the NBA's developmental league. Check out this Utube video where he jacks in 28 points. Also in this game he had a stat-line that included 5 rebounds, 7 assists, and 4 steals while shooting 10-18 from the floor, 3-6 from deep and 5-6 from the foul line. Pretty nice game, huh? Way to go Stocks!

January 11, 2015

Sunday Upset Update: Zags to be Week 10 AP #3?

What to do with the Zags (6)...  Let them climb to #3 or be leapfrogged by an undeserving team?

Three top 10 teams played unranked teams away Sunday, and all three went down in regulation:

Duke (2) @ NC State
Wisconsin (4) @ Rutgers (RUTGERS!!!)
Arizona (7) @ Oregon State

Saturday also handed Louisville a loss, and Kentucky needed two OTs to get away with the W at Texas A&M.  Coach John Calipari actually said Kentucky wasn't a very good team right now.  That seems like a bit of an extreme indictment, but they did shoot .281 from the field, less than what they shot from the promise land, at .321.  Regardless, Kentucky stays a shaky #1.

Louisville (5) @ North Carolina (18) - The Cardinals lost 72-71 in regulation.  In a tough environment, with such a close loss, it's possible the AP doesn't drop the Cards too much, but still, it has to be at least one spot past the Zags.

Week 9 AP Rankings.  Where will the Zags be
in Week 10?

Do the Zags really get AP #3 Honors?

The AP probably isn't too keen on letting the Zags wander up the polls three places in week 10, for blowing out two mid-majors at home, but Arizona's bringing up the rear, Villanova hasn't done anything special, and Utah and Maryland are too far away to make a jump into the top 5.  The AP's only really alternative is to let 'nova take the 3 spot, and still let the Zags go to #4.  Either way, the Zags will be on thin ice. 

Formalities aside, the Zags really are doing everything right.  Not falling asleep at the wheel against weaker teams is just as important as beating the strong teams  (see Four Saturday Upsets, Gonzaga Survives Portland Run to Avoid being Fifth).  So maybe the Zags do really deserve to be (3).  It's not their fault teams are falling down around them.  All they can do is win.  Maybe DJ Khaled is a Zag.

Sidenote: Is UVA better than Kentucky?  UVA hasn't struggled like Kentucky has to maintain a perfect record.  They are the only team in the top 5 who are doing well on the road as well as at home.  The AP may reward this, but it's really rare for a team to slide without actually losing.

Stay tuned for updates when the AP releases week 10 rankings in the next several hours...

January 10, 2015

Non-Conference Sleepers Threaten Zags March Drive

We're at the top of conference play.  Everyone and their dog will tell you non-conference play is the best gauge of a team's positioning come March.  But some conference games have shaken up conventional assumptions about who the powerhouses are.

Case in point:  UW came into conference play 11-3, ranked, and with wins over San Diego State (13) and Oklahoma (15).  Now they're a dismal 0-3 in PAC12 play against Cal, Stanford, and Wazzu.  And unranked.

2014 Retrospective - Lynn Holzman and WCC Influence on the Selection Committee

Then-West Coast Conference Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich was on the 2014 NCAA Tournament selection committee.  Even with him on that committee, the Zags didn't get out of the round of 32.  They got dealt a really unfavorable seeding (I was sitting on the floor at Los Angles International when I got a text from a buddy saying "Omgf*** . . . wtf how do we get so f***ed").  The Zags (8) got matched up against Marcus Smart's Oklahoma State (9) for the round of 64, and inevitably, Arizona (1) for the round of 32, below.

Gonzaga's 2014 Seed
Courtesy of espn.com

The same friend went on to say "I'd rather be in byus spot[.]"  He made a compelling point.  BYU faced a very beatable Oregon team that hadn't been ranked since its fourth game into PAC12 play.  Oklahoma State wasn't ranked when the Zags played them in the round of 64, but only because their season was marred after Smart was suspended for three games for his scuffle with a Texas Tech fan.  Getting past a 2-seed Wisconsin team after playing less-than-full speed to beat Oregon might have been an easier endeavor than playing full speed to beat a top 25 Oklahoma State team only to face a 1-seed Arizona team that sent two pro.  ****Low-blow alert.****  And it's not like BYU was going to do anything with the 2 seed besides trip Ben Carter.

Austin trips Carter, gets a Flagrant 1.  They're always
watching, Nate.  The whole country was watching.

BYU's 2014 Seed

With Zaninovich on the selection committee, it's unclear why the Zags got stuck in such a treacherous corner of the bracket.  This isn't to say Zaninovich didn't try.  Maybe he did and the committee didn't bite, or maybe he was horse-trading to secure BYU's at-large bid (I don't buy that commissioners step out of the room when their teams are up, at least not for seeding).  Whatever the reason, the Zags made the best of a bad hand, and convincingly put Oklahoma State away a second time for a bitter-sweet send off for Smart (a Mark Few pupil in the 2012 FIBA U18 championships) to the NBA Draft.

December 31, 2012.  Coach Few and Smart reminisce after Gonzaga
squeaked by Oklahoma State in Stillwater, 69-68.

Jamie Zaninovich helped grow the WCC to include BYU and Pacific, and now he's moved on to the PAC12 as a Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer.  Best of luck to him.  We now have Lynn Holzman, and hopefully she'll be able to help the Zags get eased into March competition.
But the Zags can't count on that.  In a best case scenario with 1 or 2 seed, unranked, non-conference teams are surprising some top 25 teams, and the Zags should take notice; they're on their own.

Lynn Holzman, WCC Commissioner,
succeeds Jamie Zaninovich.

Unranked Sleepers*

Here are some unranked sleepers that might not have had quality non-conference games to score some AP top 25 attention, but will get attention in-conference.

PAC 12*

(Fair warning, the following is highly editorialized)

UW (21) @ Stanford - Words cannot explain my hatred for the Stanford Cardinal and its fans.  Honestly, who chants "you can't do that" at a division I basketball game?  How entitled does a student body have to be to use a chubby middleschooler's retort as a rallying cry for a PAC12 basketball team?  Cameron Crazies step aside.  Stanford's out ranked you by combining the traditional annoying nerd with a healthy tinge of pretentious pettiness typically reserved for Mikhail Prokhorov.

Rookies and Mutts.

Cardinal, in case you're wondering, this is how it's done.

My personal feelings aside, Stanford showed an ability to grind out a (very boring) win.  Yes, UW had a few losses, and it was already in neutral rolling out of the AP top 25, and it was a home game, but a win over a ranked team is a win over a ranked team.  I watched the game from tip to buzzer and can honestly say I have no motivation to write anything else about it.  UW didn't care, Stanford is a mess of terribleness, and the game was mind-numbingly dry.  Since then though, they went on to lose to an equally, and uncharacteristically, terrible UCLA team in yet another 2OT dozer.  'nuff said about that.

Now back to some semblance of objectivity...

The PAC 12 will field at least Arizona and Utah, with Arizona a potential 1 seed, and favored for the automatic bid. Watch for Oregon and Colorado to make some moves, and maybe USC to get it's act together.

Arizona is not the issue for the Zags coming out of the PAC12 (hold on, let me explain), if for the only reason that they're a known quantity.  The Zags showed they could beat Arizona, and the AP believed it.  We went into McKale ranked #9, with Arizona ranked #3. We lost by 3 in overtime.  Despite that loss, the AP didn't change.  It left us right at #9, and Arizona #3.  That tells you the AP viewed the game as a chop.  It basically said "not enough information."  Utah is the PAC12's blind card for the Zags, and they should really worry if they face Utah.  Utah made its bones on Wichita State, and has been rolling ever since.


At this point, Kentucky is a safe bet for a number 1 seed, and may pull off the unicorn 40-win season.

Ole Miss @ Kentucky: Kentucky is unbeatable.  Nobody stands a chance, not even the Philadelphia 76ers.  But then unranked Ole Miss visited the Wildcats for their SEC opener, and gave Kentucky a 10-point heart-attack.  It took some key plays down the stretch, some missed free throws, leg cramps for Rebels star Stefan Moody, and an overtime for Kentucky to flee with a 3-point win.  If Moody didn't start LeBroning , Ole Miss, a team who came in 9-4, with a loss against Charleston Southern, just might have beat the Country's undisputed #1 team on their own court.  These are the likes of teams the Zags should be concerned about going into March.

Big East

Seton Hall (19) @ Xavier:  Seton Hall just finished beating two ranked teams, St. John's (15), then Villanova (6).  Just as soon as they earned AP honors, they traveled to unranked Xavier and lost by 11, then to Creighton and stole the game by 1. A streaky Seton Hall is scarier than a predictable Arizona team.  Think Dayton Flyers (11 seed) circa 2014 March Madness.  They upset Aaron Craft and (an) Ohio State (6), then Syracuse (3), then Kansas (2) to finally lose to Florida (1).  The Zags are sitting pretty as a mid major 2-seed, and prime meat for an 11-seed upset.

DePaul: Who loses to Loyola Marymount at home, then beats Marquette, Xavier, and Creighton back-to-back-to-back? Whoever the heck DePaul is (their first google result is a story on Drake wearing his creepy crush's jersey).  Who absorbs a first-half 21-point blowout at Villanova (8) only to comeback and outscore 'nova by 4 in the second half?  DePaul.

Really though, DePaul probably isn't even going to the tournament.  The point is that any team can stumble, and any team can go on a run.  Washed-up coaches commentating on local sports channels constantly fill time by saying basketball is a game of runs.  It's not.  What they mean to say is if the objectively-better team gets lazy, any team can make a run.  For that reason, the better team can prevent runs.

It's a critical distinction because when a 2 seed Kansas loses to the 11 seed Dayton Flyers, nobody honestly believes the Flyers are a better team than the 2013-14 Jayhawks.  Kansas got lazy, Dayton ran away.  Case in point: Game 6 of the 2013 NBA finals.  The Spurs thought they had the title wrapped up in 6 games (3-2), got sloppy, and let the Heat get two 3 point attempts off.  The highlight reels only remember Ray Allen's shot but the reality is the Spurs lack of hustle at the glass let the Lebron James and Ray Allen get looks, and each shot over .40 from 3-point range in the finals.  That means the Heat really had over an 80% chance to get the triple in their last possession in regulation.  The Heat didn't win, the Spurs lost.  Still don't agree?  The same two rosters got back to the finals a year later, and the Spurs put a 4-1 beat-down on the Heat.  The difference was the motivation to play all 48 minutes, or in 'nova's case, 40.


Maryland (11) @ Illinois:  Illinois is always dangerous.  They're bad loss is probably against Oregon in  Champaign, but they redeemed themselves beating the #11 Terps.  Just to point out a scar, remember the Fighting Illini handed the Zags 1 of their 8 losses in the Kennel (since the McCarthey Athletic Center was built).  We're beatable anytime, anywhere, by anyone.


Louisville  (5) @ Clemson:  The Tigers hosted UNC (19) and lost by 24.  Four days later they traveled to Louisville and gave Montrezl Harrell's Cardinals (5) a scare, losing by 6 (it was closer than that, but the 6 point gap came after fouling to preserve the game clock.

Duke (2) @ Wake Forrest:  Danny Manning's team played two AP top 5 teams within three days of each other and lost by less than 10 each.  They host UNC (18) on January 21st.  Watch for an upset.


There's a bit of buzz coming out of Laramie.  I don't believe it yet, because they've lost to both teams who might be anybody, SMU and Cal.  The real test is when they face conference powerhouse San Diego State January 14th.  Check back for an update as to whether Wyoming deserves a tournament watch.


See Sunday Upset Update: Zags to be Week 10 AP #3?

DePaul and Wyoming?  Naw…

A number of these teams probably won't even get into the tournament, but that's not the point.  The point is conference play is matching up some sleepers with some powerhouses, and yielding some unexpected results.  Maybe facing Oklahoma State or Oregon in the round of 64 isn't all that bad.  At least we know how good they are, especially when it's do-or-die.  That's where the "Madness" in March Madness' sudden-death elimination come from.  Division I ball doesn't give you the luxury of stumbling a game like the 7-game NBA playoffs do.  The Zags shouldn't be self-conscious (do these make my record look fat?) but should play every game like they're playing a 1 seed.

January 6, 2015

Pre-game Report: San Francisco

The Zags get their first turn at hosting in WCC conference play this Thursday as they take on the San Francisco Dons at the Kennel. The Dons currently sit at 1-3 in conference play, having lost three in a row to Saint Mary's, USD, and BYU respectively. It's safe to say that this has been a disappointing start to the year for a program that finished third in the conference last season, and has stayed consistently near the top of the pack for the past couple years.

After graduating do-it-all swingman Cole Dickerson and losing yet another key player to transfer, in point guard Avry Holmes, USF entered the season with the difficult task of replacing the pair's significant production. Junior forward, Mark Tollefsen, has stepped up admirably and become the focal point of the offense, increasing his production across the board while improving his field goal and three point percentages. His match-up with Kyle Wiltjer should be a fun and explosive one, as both are highly skilled big men who can really fill it up from deep. The Dons, without a real paint presence on the defensive end, do a respectable job rebounding the basketball by committee. However, look for Gonzaga to really punish USF on the boards with their superior size and strength down low. Sabonis and especially Karnowski should have field days in this one as USF lacks the size in its main rotation to contain either. Starter, Kruize Pinkins, will likely get his shot at guarding Karnowski but at 6'7 he shouldn't pose much resistance. 6'10 Derrell Roberston and 6'9 Matt Christiansen should get some burn in this one just for their size, but bring little else to the table. Freshman point guard Devin Watson has seen a spike in minutes recently as he's taken over the reins of the teams offense. He's careful with the ball, rarely turning it over, but has not shot it well to start conference play. Look for Kevin Pangos to try to rattle the inexperienced freshman early, hopefully with the help of an enthusiastic and intimidating Kennel Club, and have a strong outing. Tim Derksen and Matt Glover round out the starting five for USF, and are two solid upperclassman who should match-up well on the wing with Wesley and Bell. Probably Gonzaga's greatest advantage in this contest is its bench. The drop off is quite steep from the starters to the bench for the Dons, with little production outside of the starting five.

*Editor's note: since posting this article, news has broke that McClellan injured his foot and will not be playing vs SF tonight

Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan will suit up for his first game of the season and should have a great opportunity to get his feet wet. For all Zag fans watching this one, I'm sure the biggest takeaway will be seeing how Few uses McClellan. After Josh Perkins had his jaw broken against Georgia, Gonzaga found itself without a reliable back up for Pangos and once again relied heavily on him to handle the ball. McClellan, who was a standout in the SEC at Vanderbilt, should at the very least help take the pressure off of Pangos, but at best could be the athletic spark plug this team needs to raise it to the level of the likes of Kentucky, Duke, Virginia, and Wisconsin this season. We already know we have a very good squad on our hands and, although it's only one game, Thursday night should give us some indication if McClellan can help make this team great.

I expect the Gonzaga's starters to come out fired up to being playing back at home again and open this one up early. Don't be surprised to see some impressive statlines from the bench guys if Gonzaga follows BYU's performance and buries San Francisco like they should.

Prediction: Gonzaga  89
                  USF         64

January 5, 2015

ZagSlammed: Portland

The Zags have treated us to some highlight reel dunks (Silas Melson - see Recap: Zags over BYU 87-80 for video, Przemek Karnowski at Portland).  There might be more on the way, so I'm taking the liberty of coining the term "ZagSlam."  It's a noun, it's a verb, it's a cheesy way of describing something awesome.  In case it's not entirely self-explanatory, it's anytime a Zag dunks a ball, and puts some stank on it.  Typically the play will accentuate a run, turn momentum (either wake up the Kennel, or shut down an away crowd), cause the other team to immediately call a timeout, or some combination thereof.

The Dunk

Melson got cheated out of the first ZagSlam honors, but Karnowski's is very worthy.  Kevin Pangos poked and prodded the strong side wing defense while Karnowski roamed the baseline.  Pangos drove causing the defense to collapse on him when he reached mid-key.  Thomas van der Mars, guarding Karnowski, joined leaving Karnowski with the open baseline.  Pangos quickly fed Karnowski and rolled off as Karnowski dunked the ball with two hands.  It is a bit strange van der Mars didn't have a hand in the passing lane.  At 6'10" he seems long enough to at least obstruct the lane, but whatever happened (Pangos' pass too quick, van der Mars hook-line-sinkered, the camera angle showing less hardwood to cover than there really was), the defense took the bait, and it left Karnowski with the open baseline.  All that van der Mars could do against his own momentum was watch or hack, and he hacked.  That resulted in an And 1 and some sweaty chest-bumps.

ZagSlam Honorable Mention - Kevin Pangos

Karnowski obviously finished the play with style, but the real play-maker was Pangos.  He had the court vision to find the lane, notice van der Mars was straggling Karnowski for the help defense, and make the initial attack.  That's what really gave Karnowski the open baseline to finish the play.  Basketball purists still have a fetish for true point guard efficiency and if you do too, you ate up his high yo-yo, attack to bait the defensive triple team, and the quick feed for the easy dunk.

The following is a video of the big man doing it all (points, boards, assists, blocks, and even a very deep 3 with :15 left on the shot clock):

Karnowski's Highlights

January 4, 2015

Four Saturday Upsets, Gonzaga Survives Portland Run to Avoid being Fifth

Saturday handed four AP top 25 teams losses to unranked teams (Seton Hall over Villanova (6), Butler at St. John's (15)*, New Mexico over Colorado State (24), USC (SC) at Iowa State (9)), and a fifth needed two overtimes to escape (Georgia at Notre Dame (14)).  Gonzaga looked like it could've been the sixth team in trouble when Portland cut the Zags 21-point lead to just 5, but some clutch veteran play got the Zags back in line to take a healthy 87-75 win.

*Seton Hall downed St. John's earlier in the week before the AP had a chance to adjust, so St. John's may fall out of the rankings altogether for two straight losses against unranked opponents, and Seton Hall will get AP votes following two straight wins over AP top 25 teams.

Handing Off the Scoring Load

The Zags ran up the score board early again, only to have the home team make a second half run, and the break down couldn't be excused as home court advantage.  The Zags had a sizable fan contingent that repeatedly out-chanted the home crowd.  There were a few things contributing to the slump.  Kyle Wiltjer had an uncharacteristically quiet night, chipping in 8 points after a 15 and a 24-point game.  Gary Bell Jr. was shooting fine, and offered 12 points, but he was pulling his punches down the stretch because he was playing with 4 fouls.

Przemek Karnowski and Kevin Pangos picked up the scoring load.  Each had 21 points and combined for 3-5 from the promise land (you read that right, PK had a 3).  Both also played big minutes, PK playing 32, and Pangos logging a marathon game of 36 minutes.  PK's minutes were not easy ones.  He played with a  2" advantage against Thomas van der Mars (28 minutes) which translated to a  better field goal percentage than his opponent (9-12 versus 8-14).  But van der Mars was far quicker to the boards, logging 8 against PK's 2.

Steady Veteran Hand Stays Steady

Byron Wesley continued to quietly contribute in 31 minutes of play.  He contributed 10 points with 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal, all on a single turnover.  He continues to play unflashy but efficient basketball, scoring well into double figures in 30+ minutes in all three away games opening conference play.

Concerns, and why they're not really concerns

For the second in the first three games in conference play, the Zags allowed their opponent to break down a 20-point first half lead.  BYU actually took the lead for several minutes into the second half.  There are a few things to note though.  In both games, the Zags had enough offensive options to go to when the default post game was losing efficacy.  Pangos and Bell have been shooting well when the team needed it.  The Zags roster is also deep enough to replace star players who might be having an off night (a point Seth Greenberg beat to death, saying "you know I love me some Zags.").  The Zags have had at least two players with 20+ points in two of its first three conference games, and they weren't the same players.  Wiltjer, Pangos, and Karnowski have all shared in the honors (with an honorable mention going to Wesley for the aforementioned consistent scoring and offensive efficiency).  

No Safety for Ranked Teams

The Zags have to be careful from here on out.  The last two weeks have handed four AP top 10 teams losses from unranked teams, and the Zags have enjoyed default bumps on those losses (possibly taking the number 6 spot tomorrow on Villanova's (6) loss to Seton Hall).

Seton Hall Celebrates after Upsetting Number 6 Villanova in Regulation

Sound familiar?  The Zags got their first ever AP #1 ranking in 2013-14 by coasting through its conference schedule and letting the rest of the AP top 5s lose.  But being the best isn't only about beating tough teams, it's also about not falling asleep when playing easy teams (UNLV over Arizona (3)).  Further, the Zags can't control the conference schedule going into the tournament.  They end conference play with 3 home games and have already knocked off the three teams in back-to-back-to-back away games who beat the Zags last year.  The heavy lifting is done.  All they can do now is not fall asleep at the wheel and keep winning.

January 3, 2015

Kevin Pangos Diary #2 -Happy New Year - Northpolehoops.com

Kevin Pangos has started a diary about his basketball season and thoughts on it.

Read here- Kevin Pangos Diary #2 -Happy New Year - Northpolehoops.com

January 2, 2015

Recap: Zags over BYU 87-80

Note: sorry for the late recap.  I traveled to the game then got burried in work and travel.  Here's my insight from row six behind the bench.

The Zags traveled to Provo heavy favorites.  There was a bit of an upset bug going around college basketball though.  There were two AP top 10 upsets in UNLV over Arizona (3) and George Washington over Wichita State (9).  There were no real surprises in Provo.

The Zags ran up the score board seemingly before BYU even realized the game had tipped, at one point leading 31-15.  With starting Cougar center and post force Nate Austin injured, the Cougars were obviously hurting for size to defend against veteran back-to-the-basket and rim-protector Przemek Karnowski and athletic new-comer Domantas Sabonis.  Coach Dave Rose tried a number of post rotations until finally settling on a chippy but talent-mismatched Corbin Kaufusi.  Kaufusi's only real contribution was that he both flustered Sabonis into foul trouble (a problem that will self-correct as Sabonis gets experience), and tired Karnowski to the point where he was noticeably slow in transition, on a few occasions missing his signature hook shot.

Kaufusi tries to get physical with Karnowski.  Karnowski played
33 minutes for 9 points, 10 boards, 3 assists, and a block.

The Zags had Too Many Options

The Zags made a late but needed transition to it's perimeter offense in the second half.  Despite the Zags early massacre on the scoreboard, BYU's Kyle Colinsworth managed to tie the score going into the half on a running buzzer-beater three from 25' out.  The Zags continued a post-game attack into the second half, a strategy that became progressively less effective on account of Sabonis' foul trouble and Karnowski's overuse.  Coach Few called for a time out, and the Zags came out of it immediately executing high picks for Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos.  Both were on fire from downtown, and quickly stretched the defense to relieve Karnowski of the double teaming, something Pangos referred to as "keeping the defense honest.

Pangos celebrates one of his five 3-pointers (5/8 or .625 from deep).

It was also nice to see Pangos posting some points.  He had been in a bit of a score drought, although for fundamentally sound reasons.  With David Stockton out of the sixth man rotation that typically saw Pangos go from point guard to shooting guard, the Zags have been using Pangos exclusively as a true point guard this season.  He's spent almost all his minutes in the floor general position that resulted in him establishing one of the best assist/turnover ratios in division 1 basketball.  Not withstanding that success, it was a bit nostalgiac to see Pangos knocking down wing threes with his signature, textbook, machine-like follow through. 

Other Good Developments

Kyle Wiltjer and Byron Wesley both had great nights.  Silas Melson also got some good attention. Wiltjer really deserves some analysis here if for no other reason than he is performing fantastically.  He played great head-up mid range basketball, has great post foot-work, and is opening up the post and driving lances with his ability to shoot from any distance.  He turned in another 20+ point game.  There's really nothing else to say besides noting that he's contributing at a high level and very consistently against a range of defenses.  He is not a defensive powerhouse, but I will leave that for a future piece when I better understand his efficiency figures.

Wesley continued steady drives to the basket for high-percentage shots around post men.  Silas Melson also had an entertaining game, making a highlight reel dunk off the weak-side baseline on a cross-court assist from Karnowski.  Karnowski got the ball on the strong side high post.  Melson watched from the weak side baseline as the defense collapsed on Karnowski.  He tiptoed to towards the basket, and Karnowski made the quick pass for the uncontested dunk.  It was a great demonstration of Karnowski's poise and ability to keep his head up to make plays under pressure.

Melson's Dunk: 2H GONZ S. Melson made Dunk. Assisted by P. Karnowski ...


The Zags should have had the game in hand by 7 against a healthy BYU roster, but struggled (ever so briefly) against a hobbled BYU roster.  Basketball cannot be analyzed as a linear function, and it's more likely that the Zags played to the scoreboard.  They still scored on demand late in the second half when BYU was showing signs of life, and made consistent stops without dumb fouls.  Nevertheless, it was noteworthy that BYU closed a 20-point gap to take the lead on a pathetically-hobbled front line.  I'm sure Coach Few addressed this, both at the half, and when he obviously gave Bell and Pangos firing orders from deep.