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.