The Gonzaga University Men’s basketball team is a program that is often disrespected due to its mid-major status. After this year’s Elite Eight tournament elimination, the undertones are the same: Gonzaga’s a good team but it just can’t win come tourney time.
However, I’m here to ask if this is a false narrative or can the Zags really not win the big game when it matters most?
To be honest, this question is really up to a person’s own perspective. But there are some statistics that say that the Bulldogs do deserve some sort of respect.
First off, they have made the NCAA Tournament 21 times in a row. Regardless of what conference they play in, this is a whopping number. Does whopping make sense? I don’t know…but you get the drift.
To put this into perspective, my school, Washington State, has not made the tournament since 2008 (sigh). The Cougars couldn’t even make the tournament when WSU had NBA star Klay Thompson on their roster.
You would think that GU would have at least one off year, but guess what—they haven’t.
Gonzaga has made the Sweet 16 five years in a row. Making it to the Sweet 16 has nothing to do with conference play; this just comes down to winning games when it matters most. They hold the longest active streak in the country in this regard. The only other teams to come close to this is Michigan, Kentucky and Purdue; each of these squads have made the final 16 three years in a row.
In the last five years, the Zags have made the Sweet 16 twice, the Elite EIght twice and the National Championship game. This sounds like an elite program to me. No other west coast team has come close to duplicating the Bulldogs’ success come the big dance.
Another argument that can be made against Gonzaga is that they really don’t have elite talent. And sure, they haven’t put as many players into the NBA as programs like Kentucky, North Carolina, or Duke, but they have sent a few players to the league. They currently have three active players in the NBA: Zach Collins, Kelly Olynyk, Domantas Sabonis.
If we go through the history of the program, the Bulldogs have sent 20 players to the NBA. This is according to basketball.realgm.com, and it’s a respectable number in its own right but for the sake of time I will just focus in on this year’s roster.
This year’s team was led by two different players, Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura.
Clarke is a very talented player. He is a 6’8” forward who is a defensive nightmare for opposing players. The man has a very solid offensive game from about 12 feet and in. He has a nice floater, a beautiful spin move and he will dunk the ball with ferocity when given the chance. At the college level, he has a complete offensive game; however, he will need to continue to improve in that area to make it in the Association.
This season he averaged 16.9 PTS, 8.6 REB, and 1.9 AST. He also shot a blistering 69 percent from the field.
But were he really stands out is the defensive side of the ball. His shot-blocking ability is absolutely amazing as he constantly hurts the opposition’s feelings. His ability to reject a shot doesn’t just show against WCC opponents, it shines through against elite competition.
In a 68-66 game with 40 seconds left against Duke, he blocked RJ Barrett’s shot. Barrett is projected as a top-five pick in the upcoming NBA draft. This play, and a few other plays down the stretch, helped the Zags capture the Maui Invitational Tournament Championship, defeating the highly vaunted Blue Devils.
Clarke’s accolades this year include WCC player of the year, 2nd in the country in blocked shots, 5th in the nation in field-goal percentage, and 8th in KenPom’s player of the year rankings. I personally believe he could be a huge steal in the upcoming NBA Draft.
The other star player leading the Bulldogs this year is Hachimura. He is a strong-bodied 6’8” forward who plays with a lot of heart. To be honest, though, I wasn’t overly impressed with his skill set. He doesn’t possess elite athleticism, quickness, or a knockdown jump shot. But he still is a very solid all-around player.
Some of his biggest strengths include his ability to get in the passing lanes, his balance on the court, and his work ethic.
The kid is also a unique story. He is most likely going to be the first Japanese-born player selected in the NBA Draft. According to nbadraft.net, he is currently projected as a top-five pick.
Furthermore, his attitude is very impressive considering what he’s been through. Growing up in Japan he was treated with disrespect because he is only half Japanese. His father was of Beninese descent, while his mother was Japanese. In Japanese culture, he is an outsider and labeled as a “hafu” (bi-racial). He constantly got glared at wherever he went and just wanted to be treated like everyone else. Due to this racism, he was happy to escape to Spokane and finally blend in.
All this kid wanted to do is hoop and stay out of the spotlight, as he is very humble. It is also worth noting that he had to learn english upon arriving in the states; this is another testament to his work ethic.
I’m done harping on his upbringing; he doesn’t want this attention, but I felt like this article would be incomplete without including his background story. This aspect of his life has already been covered 700 times by different columnists. If you want to learn more, go look it up yourself.
Ok, now back to hoops.
Gonzaga has constantly been disrespected by sports experts throughout its impressive run and it’s time to stop. There has been no bigger Gonzaga hater than myself. I have constantly made fun of GU because they play in the WCC. I have stated numerous times that they aren’t an elite program, and I’m here to tell you I’m wrong.
When filling out my bracket this year, I picked the Zags to go the Final Four. About a day later I realized that based off this pick alone I have completely contradicted myself. I felt like I needed to show the Bulldogs respect, or even I couldn’t believe in my own credibility as a sportswriter.
This program has done absolutely everything except win the National Championship, and you know what, I hope they win it all next year.
I guess there’s just one thing left to say.
I’m sorry, Gonzaga.