NCAA Basketball Handicapping: Can Gonzaga Win National Championship?
by Trevor Whenham - 3/5/2013
The Bulldogs can officially never be called a Cinderella team again. That ship probably sailed years ago, but now that they have been elevated to the top of both major polls they are officially and undeniably a national power. It has been an amazing ride for the team this year. They started the season ranked just 21st in the AP Poll, and they have become only the third team in the last 21 years to rise from that high to the top of the mountain. 5Dimes now has the Bulldogs as the third-favorite to win the national title at +650.
It’s a really amazing story if you think about it. In 1999 no one knew who Gonzaga was as they shocked the world at the tournament. Now every player on the team has played on a ranked team throughout their careers. Over that time many teams have had their day, done some damage, and then disappeared. Gonzaga just keeps chugging along.
Now that they are at the top and have a good chance of being a top seed in the tournament (every team that finished the regular season at No. 1 have been a top seed since 1992), bettors can look forward to whether they have what it takes to cut down the nets this year. To do so they would have to become the first team from outside a major conference to win it all since UNLV in 1990. Of course, Butler came close twice, so the streak isn’t as dire as it seems:
Gonzaga has long had issues with respect from the bracket makers. Last year they were a very good team, but they were horrifically under-seeded as a No. 7. That meant that they ran into second-seeded Ohio State in the second round, and they left the tournament sooner than they deserved. Now as a No. 1 seed they would have the easiest path through the tournament that a team can have. It’s obviously far from easy, but it is easier.
To win games you have to outscore your opponents. Gonzaga is ridiculously good at that. They are scoring 1.20 points per possession. That’s very good. What is even better, though, is that they have outscored their opponents by 0.30 points per possession. That’s the best of all elite teams in the country, and it is a very good indication that this team is ready for prime time.
The WCC isn’t the toughest conference in the country, but going unbeaten deserves credit regardless of who it is against. Outside of the conference, though, the team did their best to challenge themselves. The losses came at Illinois and Butler — both coincidentally ranked 13th at the time. Outside of that they played seven more games against major conference teams, and they faced always feisty Davidson as well. There are certainly tougher schedules out there, but it could be worse.
Missing an inside presence
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this team is how good they have been despite losing Robert Sacre to the NBA. The loss of the seven-footer has had a big impact on their defensive rebounding and their ability to get to the free throw line. They have obviously been effective without him to this point, but those issues could amplify when the tournament starts.
Mark Few is a great coach. Arguably the biggest proof of that is that he convinced Kelly Olynyk to redshirt last year in his junior year. He wasn’t going to get a lot of playing time with Sacre around, so he took the year off and built his skills. The change has been remarkable. Now he is a national Player of the Year contender and the biggest reason for the team’s success. He shoots a ton, and rarely misses. He’s a much different player than Sacre, but he is such a big part of the offensive efficiency of this team, and he’s a very tough matchup for opponents.
The development of Olynyk, and his near-certain scoring touch from inside the arc, has really helped the game of fellow Canadian Kevin Pangos develop. In his second season, Pangos has elevated one key area of his game — he is now shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range. With Olynyk deadly inside, Pangos so tough from outside, Harris and Bell both dangerous, and all sorts of depth, this is as tough a team to play against as there is in the country.
Right year to shine
If a team outside of the traditional power structure is ever going to win it, this is the year for it to happen. There are a lot of really good teams this year, but if you have seen a great one you are watching a different sport than I am. Through Feb. 28 we saw Top-5 teams lose to unranked squads 19 times — the most in five years. Teams like Gonzaga or Miami have made big climbs in the polls. Kentucky and others have been in freefall. Every time we think a team is good, they lose in mystifying fashion. The tournament is almost always wide-open, but this is a whole new level of craziness. Gonzaga can win because there is no team out there that they absolutely can’t beat.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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