Gonzaga has finally joined the big boys.
After years of playing College Basketball’s most popular Mid-Major come tourney time, Mark Few’s winning ways and coaching acumen look to have paid off with a potential No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. Of course, the Zags will need to avoid an upset in their conference tournament, but given the run they’re on—the team rose to the No. 1 ranking nationally for the first time in school history this week—it’s hard to picture Few allowing his team to let down at this juncture.
While the strength of schedule is lacking when compared to other top teams from more competitive leagues, it still stands that the Bulldogs have lost just two games by a combined 12 points. Wins over Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma are looking better and better, too. Is this the top team in the land? Probably not right now—this is a six- or seven-loss team with a Big Ten conference schedule—but in a March that looks to be wide open, having a deserved high seed could help pave the way to the long-awaited Final Four breakthrough.
Few certainly earned his way to the top. In his 14 seasons, Few has led Gonzaga to the Big Dance every year. Four times the Bulldogs advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. He never won fewer than 23 games in any of those seasons. If there was ever a time (or a season) for those efforts to start paying postseason dividends, this is the year. Behind the post play of Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris, the Bulldogs are the third-most efficient offense in the country.
They’ll have a chance to make waves this month.
In the latest mock tournament brackets, Gonzaga is listed as a 1-seed next to Indiana, Kansas and Duke. Those accompanying programs notably serve as a who’s who in college basketball. Perhaps Mark Few’s Bulldogs can close the gap sooner rather than later.
KEEP AN EYE ON…
Otto Porter Jr., Georgetown: The smooth 6’8’’ Hoyas forward has made his way onto this list before, but he's worth a second mention after leading the hottest team in the country to 11 straight wins (before losing to Villanova Wednesday). Between the Hoyas’ loss to UCF on Jan. 19 and on Wednesday night, the sophomore averaged 19.7 points per game, including 20-point efforts against Seton Hall, Marquette, Syracuse, UConn and Rutgers. Perhaps with newfound confidence in his lottery-bound play, Porter’s biggest adjustment during Georgetown’s recent winning ways has been his aggressiveness: after shooting 55 free throws in his team's first 16 games, Porter has now hoisted 77 charity shots in his last 12.
Quinn Cook, Duke: One of the most improved players in the country, Cook is an oft-overlooked piece to the Blue Devils’ puzzle. Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry get the headlines—while freshman Rasheed Sulaimon occasionally steals the thunder—but Cook’s jump in numbers across the board has propelled Coach K’s team back to the forefront. In Duke and UNC’s last meeting, Cook provided the biggest mismatch on the court, thoroughly outplaying Tar Heels point guard Marcus Paige in a four-point win. He’ll need to remain aggressive (averaging 17 points in his last three games) and consistently get into the paint in this weekend’s rematch.
THE FIFTH WATCH
Wisconsin at Michigan State: The Spartans walked away with a low-scoring win in the first meeting despite being beaten on the offensive glass, shooting fewer free throws and turning the ball over more frequently. Of course, if Wisconsin made their free throws that game (38.9 percent), they could still be in the mix for the Big Ten regular season title. Don’t expect much more than 100 combined points this time around either, as both teams still rank in the top-10 in defensive efficiency. Spartans’ freshman Gary Harris has become the team’s leading scorer in conference play (13.3 points per game), but Michigan State’s outcome will depend on the consistency of point guard Keith Appling. Pick: Wisconsin
Duke at UNC: When Roy Williams inserted his four-guard lineup into the equation last time his Tar Heels played their archrival—a move many had called for long before he pulled the trigger—his team took Duke down to the wire. Now, six wins later, but still unranked, small ball will be tested once more. As was the case last time out, UNC will need big performances from James Michael McAdoo, Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston to have a good chance at this one. Duke is not an unstoppable force—Virginia and Maryland proved that. The Tar Heels should split the season series here. Pick: UNC
Syracuse at Georgetown: This is just not a very good Syracuse team right now. The Orange have lost six of their last 11 games and have not beaten a ranked opponent in over a month (No. 25 Notre Dame). Jim Boeheim’s normally scary zone is not scaring opposing offenses right now, although its own offense may be the key in this one. Georgetown shot just 41.7 effective field goal percentage in its win over Syracuse last month, but the Hoyas defense suffocated Brandon Triche and the Orange offense. If Boeheim’s squad has a chance, it has to shut down Porter. Pick: Georgetown
Kansas State at Oklahoma State: Still not buying Kansas State as a top-10 team. The Wildcats have two true quality wins on the résumé: a win over Florida back in December and a victory over this Oklahoma State team at home. In the meantime, Bruce Weber’s team has done well to avoid upsets against Big 12 middleweights, but that doesn’t warrant a No. 9 ranking. The Wildcats have played much worse on the road than at home and the Cowboys are really starting to hit their stride, anchored by the nation’s seventh-stingiest defense. Pick: Oklahoma State
Indiana at Michigan: If there’s one thing I’ll remember looking back on the season that was in the ultra-competitive Big Ten, it will be the schedule and the way it churned out gems week after week. So, perhaps, this is a fitting bow to place on top of the top conference’s head. With the two top-ranked offenses in the country (Indiana ranks No. 1 in efficiency, Michigan No. 2), what will Jim Delany’s league provide for its centerpiece finale? Last time these two teams met, Indiana shot the lights out at home. That likely won’t be the case in Ann Arbor, but expect Player of the Year frontrunner Victor Oladipo to make enough plays to help the Hoosiers win the conference title. Pick: Indiana
THIS IS WHY…
Sports writers and fans need to stop feigning surprise whenever a prominent coach or athlete states the obvious—even if it is an amateur elephant in the room.
UCLA coach Ben Howland made headlines again this week—in this instance, not concerning hot seat talk—when he voiced the popular assumption that his star freshman, Shabazz Muhammad, will turn pro following the season. This is not breaking news. It is one coach’s informed opinion on what will take place given the circumstances of his player’s talents and the NBA treating the NCAA as a free minor league system. Muhammad’s name dots every mock draft, so why are we faking shock that a college coach would dare resign to a young man not returning to school?
“I’m very much a realist now,” Howland said. “I knew going into this deal that this was a one-year deal, and it should be. He’s a lottery pick. He’s a top-five pick. When you have that going for you, it is absolutely the right thing.”
The statement reminded me of Steve Spurrier's quote from a few months ago following the Clemson game while he was praising the pro-level talents of Jadeveon Clowney. To briefly paraphrase, Spurrier said the program would be afforded the privilege of retaining the star defensive end for one more year (his junior season) and then all the coaches will shake Clowney’s hand and thank him for all he did for the University of South Carolina. Let’s stop expecting coaches to play the “Hopefully we’ll have him next year, too” card.
Do we really want coaches and athletes to publicly wallow in naiveté?
So is Muhammad guaranteed to go pro? It’s not 100 percent in the books. But we all assume he will, seeing as the other option (returning to UCLA) requires sacrificing basic rights and being largely exploited for another 12 months. It would be a sound financial decision, by most accounts. UCLA’s head coach was merely riding along on the NBA-bound bandwagon.
This is why John Calipari is on to something in Lexington at the moment—he doesn’t back down from saying a key part of his job is getting his freshman and sophomore stars into the NBA Draft. He expects them to be good enough to leave early. If everyone knows the one-and-done M.O., why wouldn’t a coach go ahead and embrace the culture (until it’s otherwise fixed or changed)?
Howland should not have felt the need to apologize. We were already thinking it.