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Why Gonzaga is one of the absolute best teams in the country

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

By: Kels Dayton

Papa Dayton doesn’t respect them (he always says they’re overrated), half of the country thinks they can’t win in the NCAA Tournament, and 75 percent of people couldn’t name another team in the WCC.

But come March, everyone is going to find out that this Gonzaga team can really play. The Bulldogs might, in fact, be one of the top three or four teams in the country, behind (obviously) Kentucky and maybe Arizona.

This incarnation of the ‘Zags has everything a college basketball contender needs–an experienced backcourt (seniors Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley lead the way), outstanding three-point shooting (junior forward Kyle Wiltjer shoots the trey at nearly 40 percent), a rugged big man who can score (Przemek Karnowski puts up 10 points to go along with 6.8 rebounds per game), and a star freshman who could end up being the best player on the team by tournament time (Arvydas’ son Domantas Sabonis, who’s already averaging 11 and 6 and has post moves like his pops).

Arvydas' son Domantas has been a revelation for the Zags as a rookie this season. (USA Today Photo/James Snook)

Arvydas’ son Domantas has been a revelation for the Zags as a rookie this season. (USA Today Photo/James Snook)

Wiltjer, Karnowski and Sabonis will all undoubtedly be NBA draft picks, and Wiltjer, who transferred from Kentucky and has a super-sweet shooting motion to go along with a face that looks like Mac Miller’s, could end up being a stud. He’s 6-10, but he plays like a shooting guard and has shown the potential to rebound (5.4 per) as well as stroke it from 3. He leads the ‘Zags in scoring at 17.2 per, and if he’s open, he’s going to knock down the shot. He proved that time and time again in the Bulldogs’ 87-74 win at UCLA on Saturday night.

Sabonis has been almost as impressive this season, showing his bloodlines in the form of several next-level moves in the post and a terrific passing accumen. He honestly looks like a skinnier, more athletic version of his father, and he’s got plenty of time to grow, as he’s only 18 years old.

Karnowski has size and toughness (which can be rare), and is more than serviceable on offense down low. You can go to him to get buckets inside, which is something that you can’t say for most centers in the college game.

Beyond those three, point guard Kevin Pangos is having a terrific season. He’s running the show, averaging 5.3 assists per game and he’s pushing all the right buttons, too. Pangos has a knack for knocking down the big shot when he needs to, and he looks for his own offense when it’s going to spark the team.

The ‘Zags are incredibly deep, as five players average in double figures in scoring and Gary Bell Jr. averages 9.5. Byron Wesley, the other senior in the backcourt, is the team’s second-leading scorer at 12.3 per.

Gonzaga hasn’t played an incredibly tough schedule yet, but the Bulldogs are wrecking teams, having beaten St. Joseph’s 92-44 (the Hawks are awful this season), SMU 72-56, and Texas Southern 94-54. They put up 104 on Sacramento State and thumped UCLA by 13 at Pauley in a game they completely controlled throughout. Their only loss came at Arizona on Dec. 6, in a game they led throughout and easily could have won.

This team is better than the 1-seed led by Kelly Olynyk that almost lost to 16th-seeded Southern in 2013. It’s just as good as the 2006 team led by Adam Morrison that suffered one of the most heartbreaking losses in history and might have reached the national title game if it weren’t for J.P. Bautista.

Only Kentucky, Duke and Arizona can match Gonzaga’s depth and talent up front. Wisconsin, Louisville, Kansas and Texas are the only other teams in the conversation.

Don’t look now, but for the first time since the Adam Morrison days, Gonzaga is a national championship contender.

That’s right, dad. This team is for real.

 

–Shout out to my boy Greels, who actually owns a Morrison jersey. Now that’s a fan.

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