Przemek Karnowski

Kyle Wiltjer, Desmond Simmons

No. 3 Gonzaga takes away Saint Mary’s best scoring option in blowout victory

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In recent years the rivalry between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga has developed into one of the best in the western United States, with the combination of skilled players and high stakes resulting in intense match-ups whether the game was being played during the regular season or WCC tournament. Thursday night the two programs met in Spokane with matching 7-0 conference records, and with Brad Waldow serving as their anchor in the post the Gaels are the biggest threat to Gonzaga’s quest to win yet another WCC regular season title.

But after Waldow accounted for ten points and five rebounds in the game’s first 20 minutes, keeping Saint Mary’s well within striking distance, the senior power forward was kept in check by the Gonzaga big men and the Bulldogs eventually won by the final score of 68-47.

Saint Mary’s may have shot a slightly higher percentage in the second half than they did in the first, but a lot of that damage was done early and with their primary scoring option neutralized the Gaels struggled mightily as the half wore on. Mark Few’s team shot 52.9% from the field on the night, with Kevin Pangos leading three players in double figures with 14 points while also dishing out five assists, and they limited Saint Mary’s to 36 percent shooting.

Against Waldow (14 points, 6-for-13 FG) the Bulldogs mixed things up defensively, sometimes defending him with a single player and in other spots sending over a second big to double Waldow. With Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer (they combined for 30 points and 31 rebounds) at his disposal, Few is able to defend a big man of Waldow’s caliber in multiple ways. With Waldow less effective, the Bulldogs were able to put together a 19-2 second half run that removed any doubt as to which team would win the game.

While Gonzaga has always been praised for its ability to put points on the board, the strides made defensively the last two years have been overlooked by some. This isn’t a group that’s going to rack up the “glamour” stats that tend to be referenced when the nation’s best defenses are discussed, as they’re in the middle of the pack nationally in both steals and blocks per game.

But they’re solid when it comes to positioning and limiting quality looks, forcing opponents to make contested shots more often than not. That’s resulted in Gonzaga leading the WCC in field goal percentage defense (38.4%) and trailing only Pepperdine in three-point percentage defense (30.6%). Thursday night, in addition to their 36 percent night from the field Saint Mary’s mad just two of its 15 three-pointers with guard Aaron Bright going scoreless on 0-for-7 shooting (0-for-5 3PT).

Thursday’s game can be viewed as Saint Mary’s missing out on an opportunity to bolster their resume with a win over the best team they’ve faced to date. But this was about Gonzaga, with the Bulldogs taking away Saint Mary’s best offensive option in the second half and handing the Gaels their biggest defeat of the season.

New Year’s Resolutions: Gonzaga Bulldogs

Kyle Wiltjer (Getty Images)
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Gonzaga head coach Mark Few (Getty Images)

Conference play is right around the corner, so over the course of the next two weeks, College Basketball Talk will be detailing what some of the country’s best, most intriguing, and thoroughly enigmatic teams should resolve to do with the New Year right around the corner. What can we say, we’re in a giving mood. Thank Jessica Simpson.

MORE: The rest of our New Year’s Resolutions | Midseason catchups

GONZAGA PROMISES TO: Get Kevin Pangos more shot attempts within the offense.

  • It will happen because: Pangos is currently averaging 7.2 field goal attempts per game, three fewer attempts than he averaged as a junior (10.3), and he’s averaged at least nine attempts per game in each of his first three seasons at Gonzaga. Thus far Pangos has attempted ten shots or more in just two games (SMU and Arizona), and his scoring average (10.8 ppg) is more than three points below his average of a season ago (14.4). But it must be noted that Pangos’ percentages are up, as he’s currently shooting 48.8% from the field, 42 percent from three and 89.3% from the foul line while also averaging 4.9 assists per game (3.6 apg in 2013-14).
  • It won’t happen because: He’s their best distributor and with freshman Josh Perkins out of the lineup with a broken jaw, Pangos’ ability to get the ball to his teammates in spots where they can be most successful is more important than him getting shots. Plus, this is where Gonzaga’s improved depth and increased number of scoring options come into play. Kyle Wiltjer has been the impact transfer many expected him to be before the season began, Przemek Karnowski’s improved in the post and the addition of newcomers such as Byron Wesley and Domantas Sabonis have helped as well. Add in fellow senior Gary Bell Jr., and there’s no need to fret over how many shots Pangos is getting.

GONZAGA ALSO SWEARS THEY WON’T: Have issues getting to the foul line in conference play.

  • It will happen because: Interestingly enough getting to the foul line has been even more of an issue this season than it was in 2013-14, with Gonzaga’s free throw rate dropping from 41.2 to 35.4. One key in this area is Karnowski, whose individual free throw rate has dropped from 75.8 to 24.2. Gonzaga’s schedule in non-conference play has presented some matchups with teams better equipped to defend their big men without fouling, and with Wiltjer being more perimeter-oriented he hasn’t gotten to the line much either.
  • It won’t happen because: Even with the Bulldogs rating as one of the nation’s best offensive teams with regards to both field goal percentage and efficiency, there’s still room for this team to grow on that end of the floor. More game action together guys will have an even better idea of where each player is most capable of having an impact offensively, which should lead to more opportunities to get to the foul line. Add in the fact that they’re in a conference that doesn’t have another team ranked in the Top 100 in adjusted defensive efficiency per, and that should also benefit the Bulldogs moving forward.

No. 9 Gonzaga’s improvement defensively is why people should buy their Final Four potential

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few (Getty Images)
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Gonzaga head coach Mark Few (Getty Images)

TUCSON — In winning 29 games a season ago, No. 9 Gonzaga was able to combine a solid offensive attack with a level of play on the defensive end that was better than many had grown accustomed to seeing. From an efficiency standpoint Gonzaga ranked 15th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency per, the program’s best ranking in that category during Mark Few’s tenure as head coach, and they also limited opponents to 39.8% shooting from the field and 31.8% shooting from beyond the arc.

Yet even with those numbers being what they were there was doubt regarding the Bulldogs’ chances of beating the nation’s best teams, as their overall schedule lacked opportunities against high-level competition. Gonzaga would play just one game against a ranked team last season, and that was their loss to Arizona in the NCAA tournament.

With that, and the fact that the Bulldogs haven’t reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2009, there are some skeptics when it comes to discussing this current group’s chances of making a run at the program’s first Final Four appearance. However if there’s anything to be taken from their tough 66-63 overtime loss at No. 3 Arizona, it’s that the Bulldogs should be considered every bit capable of doing just that.

The biggest reason why: this group has defended at a level that most of Few’s past Gonzaga teams have been incapable of reaching.

And even though there was certainly a high level of respect for Gonzaga ahead of their meeting Saturday, Arizona head coach Sean Miller noticed a difference in Few’s squad.

“We played Gonzaga because they’re one of the great programs in college basketball,” Miller said following the win. “And to be candid I didn’t anticipate them having even as good of a team as they have, because adding [Domantas] Sabonis and Byron Wesley as late as they did gives them, to me, that ‘next level’ type of team.”

Of course the way in which Gonzaga finished that game, scoring just one field goal over the final 9:05, wasn’t pretty. But even with that drought the Bulldogs were right in there, going toe-to-toe with an Arizona team that’s been afforded the respect worthy of a national title contender. Gonzaga’s defense, even with Arizona shooting 60 percent from the field in the second half, had a lot to do with that. Arizona broke even in assist-to-turnover ratio (13 assists, 13 turnovers), and for the game they shot just over 44 percent from the field.

And those numbers were far superior to what Gonzaga was able to produce during the teams’ NCAA tournament game last season.

On that day Arizona beat Gonzaga by the final score of 84-61, and the fact of the matter is that the game wasn’t all that close. The Wildcats led by as much as 28 on that day, limiting the Bulldogs to 40.7% shooting and forcing 21 Gonzaga turnovers. Arizona was even better offensively, shooting 49.2% from the field and racking up 24 assists to just six turnovers.

“Last year they destroyed us in the NCAA tournament, but it’s a different year and a different team,” Gonzaga junior center Przemek Karnowski told after the game. “We remembered that we were simply destroyed by them, and I think we really fought [Saturday].”

For Gonzaga, the improved health of guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. and Few having more options to turn two are the differences between last season and this one. Thanks in part to the addition of the likes of Sabonis, Wesley and Kyle Wlitjer the Bulldogs are more diverse offensively, with Wiltjer giving them a four capable of stepping out onto the perimeter and Wesley filling a void on the wing the Bulldogs were unable to adequately address in 2013-14.

Gonzaga didn’t shoot as well as they would have liked Saturday, with Wiltjer needing 16 shot attempts to score 15 points and Pangos limited to eight points on 3-for-10 shooting. Yet even with that being the case, their defense not only kept the Bulldogs afloat but also had them in position to earn what would have been one of the most impressive wins of the season to date.

Will Gonzaga need to do a better job of finding quality looks down the stretch? Yes, but it isn’t as if that was a serious issue entering Saturday’s game. Against Arizona the Bulldogs encountered challenges they’d yet to face this season, and despite not playing their best Gonzaga nearly overcame them. In the end Gonzaga went home with a loss, but they also returned to Spokane with experiences that will only help them as the season wears on.

“It’s a great experience,” Few noted. “Obviously we wanted to finish it off, and we felt like we should have finished it off. We just let it slip away. We’ve been scheduling games like this since I’ve been the head coach.

“That’s what college basketball is all about.”

Despite the outcome, the question of whether or not this current group of Bulldogs was equipped to take on such a test was answered in the affirmative.

Kevin Pangos is the big name, but Gonzaga’s biggest strength are their biggest men

Domantas Sabonis (AP Photo)
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Kyle Wiltjer (Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Kevin Pangos is the star of this Gonzaga team. He’s the engine that makes their powerhouse offense operate, a sharp-shooting, turnover-free point guard that has been arguably the best player in the country through the first two weeks of the season.

His raw numbers are not overly impressive — 12.0 points, 6.3 assists, 47.6 percent from three — but if you dig deeper, those stats jump off the page. Pangos’ offensive rating, according to, is 166.0, and while it’s still very early, that number is unheard of. His effective field goal percentage is 76.5, his assist rate is 33.0 and his turnover percentage is 8.7, all of which would lead the nation if he somehow miraculously kept that pace.

Those numbers too intense for you? This is all you really need to know: through six games, Pangos has missed only 15 shots and turned the ball over just four times.

“I sleep a solid eight hours a night.” head coach Mark Few said of having Pangos as his point guard. “I’m trying to get him a fifth year. Why not give one to him and keep my stress level down?”

“It’s just good to be healthy again,” Pangos said.

I bet it is.

Pangos deserves every droplet of hype and praise that he’ll get over the course of the next four months, but it’s important to note that the reason this Gonzaga team is so dangerous has just as much to do with their front line as it does with their all-american point guard.

Mark Few’s front court rotation is more or less a three-headed monster, with all three pieces having a unique skill set that gives the Gonzaga head coach the freedom of having a versatile lineup, creating and minimizing mismatches as he sees fit.

Domantas Sabonis (AP Photo)

It starts with the big fella, 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski. He’s tall, he’s long, he doesn’t get moved out of position easily and what he does best is, essentially, taking up as much space as possible around the rim. You’re not finishing over him and you’re not backing him down, which means that he can guard opposing bigs in the post or work as a rim protector if the Zags go to their zone. Offensively, he’s big enough to establish position and has enough touch around the basket to be a threat to score the ball.

Kyle Wiltjer is a completely different player. He can legitimately stretch the floor out to 25 feet, which only creates more space for Karnowski, and is a threat to score with his back to the basket or when he’s forced to square a defender up. The knock on Wiltjer is that he’s not a defender or a rebounder, bordering on being a liability at that end.

The third option, the sixth-man for the Zags, is freshman Domas Sabonis, the son of Arvydas and a 6-foot-10, left-handed freshman that spent time playing in the highest level of the Spanish pro leagues. Sabonis is a bit raw offensively, but he’s the most athletic of Gonzaga’s bigs, he runs the floor exceptionally well and he is active on the glass and in the paint. He’s also quick enough defensively that he can switch on ball-screens. Angel Nunez, a Louisville transfer that doesn’t play many minutes, is the fourth big man off the bench for Gonzaga and is more athletic than Sabonis.

“We’ll run different schemes offensively and defensively [with different lineups],” Few said. “We can switch screens with Domas and Angel. We run more of a perimeter-oriented, quick-hitting, player movement offense [with Wiltjer]. With Przemek and Domas, we can go hi-lo and play power basketball.”

Gonzaga’s run to the Preseason NIT title last week was the perfect example of this.

On Wednesday night, playing against a Georgia team that had big, physical forwards, Wiltjer had his best game as a collegian, finishing with a career-high 32 points on 14-for-26 shooting. Pangos and Wiltjer have already gotten quite comfortable running side pick-and-roll actions, and the two of them slowly-but-surely eviscerated the Georgia defense.

Sabonis and Karnowski struggled, however, combining to play just 30 minutes before they both fouled out. They absence was evident in the second half, as Wiltjer and Nunez overpowered in the paint, which is what allowed the Bulldogs to stay in the game late.

Friday night’s title game was very different, as St. John’s only has two big men on the roster. Sir’Dominic Pointer, one of the most athletic players in the country, plays the four, which meant that Wiltjer had some trouble getting going offensively. No matter, as Sabonis played one of his best games of the young season, finishing with 14 points, nine boards and a pair of assists while shooting 6-for-6 from the floor as Gonzaga used their size advantage to overwhelm the Johnnies.

That kind of depth and that kind of versatility along the front line is a luxury few programs have. It allows Gonzaga to minimize their disadvantages. When Wiltjer is hot, he is a matchup problem that can score points in flurries and will create space by pulling a big man out to the three-point line. It counteracts whatever he gives up defensively.

But on the nights when he’s not shooting well, Gonzaga has someone to bring in off the bench that can defend and rebound and pretty much do all of those things that Wiltjer can’t.

So while the only point guards that are playing better than Pangos these days are getting paychecks from the NBA, what is going to allow Gonzaga to compete with the best teams in the country is their size and versatility along the front line.

No. 13 Gonzaga makes definitive statement with blowout of No. 22 SMU

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I tried to tell you.

All throughout the preseason, I tried to make it known that Gonzaga was going to be one of the best teams in the country this season, that this Gonzaga roster is the most talented roster that Mark Few has had at his disposal, and that includes the 2006 and 2013 Gonzaga teams.

If you didn’t pay attention, Monday night was your wakeup call.

The No. 13 Zags rolled No. 22 SMU, 72-56, behind 17 points and seven assists from Kevin Pangos. Domantas Sabonis chipped in with 13 points and nine boards while Kyle Wiltjer added 10.

Before I get into praising Gonzaga, let’s make one thing clear: this was not the SMU team we all expected to see this season. Emmanuel Mudiay is in China. Markus Kennedy, the program’s best big man, is sitting this semester as the result of some academic eligibility issues, which accentuated the fact that this was a bad matchup for the Mustangs. They are a team that relied pretty heavily on being able to overpower opponents in the paint, and not only were they going up against one of the best front lines in the country on Monday night, they were doing it on the road without their best big man.

Come January, Gonzaga is not going to be 20 points better than SMU. We can bet on that if you would like.

But back to Gonzaga, all the hype during the preseason centered on two things: that Pangos was finally healthy after battling ankle and toes issues last season, and that Wiltjer was going to be eligible. Throw in Byron Wesley, Sabonis, Josh Perkins and, eventually, Eric McClellan, and the hype was justified.

But here’s the real difference with this group: they are going to bully people in the paint, and they are going to be very, very good defensively.

What got glossed over last season as Gonzaga put together an unremarkable season, by their standards, was that they were No. 15 nationally in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom. That should continue this season, especially when you consider the pieces they added, and while I’m not completely convinced that a lineup that includes Pangos, Wiltjer and Przemek Karnowski will remain one of the best in the country on that end of the floor, it’s hard to argue with the results. That matchup zone they used at times against SMU looked impenetrable.

The Zags have so many weapons on the offensive end of the floor. This is not a state secret. If they continue to defend the way that they have through the first two games of the season, we are looking at an honest-to-goodness national title contender.

Top 25 Countdown: No. 9 Gonzaga Bulldogs

Kevin Pangos (Getty Images)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 9 Gonzaga.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

Mark Few (AP Photo)

Head Coach: Mark Few

Last Season: 29-7, 15-3 WCC (1st)

Key Losses: David Stockton, Sam Dower, Gerard Coleman

Newcomers: Domantas Sabonis, Kyle Wiltjer, Byron Wesley, Josh Perkins, Silas Melson

Projected Lineup

G: Kevin Pangos, Sr.
G: Gary Bell Jr., Sr.
G: Byron Wesley, Sr.
F: Kyle Wiltjer, Jr.
C: Przemek Karnowski, Jr.
Bench: Domantas Sabonis, Fr.; Josh Perkins, Fr.; Kyle Draginis, Jr.; Silas Melson, Fr.; Angel Nunez, Jr.

They’ll be good because … : This group is going to be a nightmare to try and stop this season. Let’s start with Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga’s star point guard that has seemingly been on campus since Adam Morrison was still playing. As a junior, Pangos averaged 14.5 points and 3.6 assists while shooting 41.2% from three despite the fact that he was, quite frankly, not healthy all year long. He battled turf toe and ankle issues. Now that he’s healthy, expect the borderline All-American to show back up this season, which is terrific news for Zags fans given the amount of talent that surrounds him.

Let’s start with the front court. Kyle Wiltjer, the former McDonalds All-American that spent two seasons at Kentucky, is eligible this season. He spent the last year developing his body — strength, athleticism, mobility, fluidity, everything — and can still shoot the lights out, meaning that he should be a perfect front court compliment to Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis. Karnowski is a massive, 7-foot-1 low post scorer while Sabonis, the son of the legendary Arvydas Sabonis, is a talented freshman that comes from Lithuania via the Spanish pro league.

Gary Bell Jr. and USC transfer Byron Wesley will provide scoring pop on the wings as well, giving Few one of the most balanced and dangerous lineups in the country. Gonzaga will be a lot of fun to watch this season.

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Kevin Pangos (Getty Images)

But they might disappoint because … : As many answers as there are for Gonzaga on the offensive end of the floor, there are that many questions for them defensively. Pangos has never been known as a great on-ball defender. Wiltjer should be stronger and quicker this season, but that doesn’t mean that he is going to be able to hold his on in the paint against, say, Montrezl Harrell or be able to hedge hard on ball-screens. Karnowski is big and takes up space in the lane, but he’s not ever going to move quickly in any direction.

Against good teams, and against teams that prioritize ball-screens, the Zags are going to struggle to get stops if they play predominantly man-to-man. Will they play zone or use matchup zones heavily? Gonzaga improved quite a bit on the defensive end of the floor as last season wore on, so it will be interesting to see what Few cooks up in Spokane this season.

Outlook: This might be the most talented Gonzaga team that Mark Few has ever had. I know, I know, we say that seemingly every season and Gonzaga has yet to return to the Elite 8 after their run under Dan Monson in 1999. This season is different, however. The Zags are healthy, they are loaded with talented veterans, they have a front line that can match up, size-wise, with anyone in the country, and their perimeter is one of the best in the country.

Can the Zags make a Final Four this season? Absolutely, but, like anyone else, it is going to depend on a couple of key factors: Their defense, Kyle Wiltjer’s offseason development and the health of Kevin Pangos. If all three of those things go according to plan, don’t be surprised to see Gonzaga roll through the WCC and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.