UNION, N.J. — Gonzaga’s basketball team is held up as the bastion of mid-major hoops, proof positive that the limits created by conference affiliation, television revenue and a football program that neither Jim Delany nor Mike Slive give a damn about cannot keep a hoops team from playing high-major basketball.
And forget about calling the Zags a mid-major program. Gonzaga recruits nationally and internationally. They battle it out with programs from the traditional power conferences for top 50 and top 100 recruits. Josh Perkins, a top 75 point guard in the Class of 2014, picked the Zags over UCLA and Minnesota, among others. Kyle Wiltjer, a former McDonald’s all-american, transferred to Gonzaga from Kentucky.
Gonzaga is a high-major program, one of the top 25 basketball schools in the country.
They have been since Dan Monson, Matt Santangelo and company took them to within one possession of knocking off eventual national champs UConn in the Elite 8 back in 1999.
But the Zags haven’t made it back to the Elite 8 in 15 years. They’ve been to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament just twice since 2001: In 2006, when an Adam Morrison-led team blew a 17-point lead to UCLA, and in 2009, when they beat a No. 13 and No. 12 seed to get through the weekend. Five times in the last 13 NCAA tournaments, the Zags have been upset by a lower-seeded team. Only once in that time frame — back in 2011, when they beat St. John’s as a No. 11 seed — have they pulled off a real upset.
Once known as giant-killers, the cinderella you always pick in your bracket, Gonzaga’s developed a new reputation: overrated and perennially overhyped. It came to a head back in the 2013 NCAA tournament, when Kelly Olynyk and company were given the No. 1 overall seed, a fairly-controversial decision, only to lose in the Round of 32 to Wichita State, who eventually made the Final Four.
And you better believe that Gonzaga players have picked up on that rep.
“I definitely notice,” Kevin Pangos told NBCSports.com at the Point Guard Skills Academy last week. “I don’t listen to what people say so much because sometimes we do play great teams and lose. Sometimes it’s a tough situation like that.”
Pangos would know as well as anyone.
He’s been the face of Gonzaga basketball for the better part of three years, ever since he exploded on the scene by scoring 33 points and hitting nine threes in a blowout win over Washington State during ESPN’s 24-hour college hoops marathon. It was his first nationally-televised game as a freshman, but it may have been the last time that Pangos was truly a major part of college basketball’s national conversation. As a sophomore, Pangos was overshadowed as the Zags rode front court work horses Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris to the No. 1 overall seed. And this past season, Pangos was a shell of himself as he battled turf toe on one foot and a sprained ankle on the other.
“I was playing at 60%,” Pangos said. “It was so frustrating. I was just trying to help the team win and not make myself any worse. I was taped up and braced up, trying to stitch myself together.”
The issue, Pangos said, wasn’t just that those injuries cut down on his already limited explosiveness and lateral mobility. It killed his balance, making running off of screens and sprinting into open jumpers — his bread and butter — a painful endeavor.
“It just wasn’t fun,” he said. “I was in pain the whole time, because it was both feet. It wasn’t just one, both were hurt.”
The injuries were so bad that Pangos spent nearly three months after the season ended rehabbing, trying to get back to 100%. He would shoot, he said, but he wasn’t doing much running and didn’t even play live, 5-on-5 basketball until about a week before he left for the Point Guard Skills Academy.
“I’m better, but not quite 100%,” he said.
The health of their senior point guard will be key for the Zags next season, but Pangos won’t be forced to carry the entire load as the Zags will field a team that could find themselves in the top ten heading into the 2014-2015 season. Sam Dower graduates, as does David Stockton, but Mark Few has added more than enough pieces to reload. Four-star point guard Josh Perkins joins the program, as does Domantas Sabonis, a seven-foot Lithuanian that is the son of the great Arvydas Sabonis and would be a five-star recruit had he played his high school ball state-side. Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer will be eligible to play, as will USC transfer Byron Wesley and Vanderbilt castoff Eric McClellan.
Throw in returnees Gary Bell Jr., Przemek Karnowski, Kyle Dranginis and Angel Nunez, and what you get is a team with plenty of size, shooting, lineup versatility and depth.
The only thing that they’ll be short on next season is expectations.
“I want to peak at the right time,” Pangos said. “We’ve had good seasons, but we haven’t had any great years. Even when we were ranked No. 1, we didn’t end the year strong. So I want to have an all-around, strong year from start to finish. We might lose a few games here or there. But no matter what, I want us to have a full year. I need to get somewhere I’ve never been before: the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.”
“But I want to make it as far as we can, to a Final Four,” he added. “To get that experience in my last year. I don’t want to say that if we don’t make it, it will be a failure, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I don’t want to miss out on.”