1) A different kind of Gonzaga team
The first thing that jumps out about Gonzaga this season is how much bigger they are on the perimeter. For the last four years, they started two 6'2 guards - Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. - which put a ceiling on their program because Pangos wasn't a high-level athlete and Bell couldn't create his own shot and neither guy had the size to match up with bigger backcourts. This season's team goes 6'3 185 (Josh Perkins), 6'4 195 (Eric McClellan) and 6'5 200 (Kyle Dranginis), which gives them the size to play with the vast majority of NCAA teams on the perimeter.
While Bell and Pangos were great NCAA players, the holes in their game were exposed when they went up against elite competition. Their loss to Duke in the Elite Eight last season was the perfect example - Pangos and Bell combined to play 76 of 80 minutes in the backcourt and they scored a grand total of 9 points on 14 shots and handed out 2 assists on 5 turnovers. There just wasn't much they could do against future NBA guards like Tyus Jones on either side of the ball. This year's guards are far from perfect but they at least give the Zags the chance to match up physically with elite competition.
Gonzaga has a pretty short bench this season and they only played 7 guys against SMU on Saturday but all the pieces fit together pretty well. The only guy in their rotation who doesn't shoot 3's is Domantas (son of Arvydas) Sabonis - he dominates the interior of the lane and everyone else spreads the floor around him. They play a pretty reasonable facsimile of an NBA offense, with Kyle Wiltjer opening up the floor for Sabonis to roll to the rim and the other three guards spread out around the 3-point line. They can almost always get a good shot when they throw the ball in to Sabonis and he has such a high basketball IQ that he can read the floor and make the right decision almost every time, whether it's to face up and take it to the rim, put a guy on his back and play bully ball or dissect the defense and find the open man if they double down on him.
The other big difference from last season's team is the absence of Przemek Karnowski, their 7'1 300 mountain man of a C whose career ended following back surgery earlier in the season. Karnowski was an elite defensive anchor and a guy who could facilitate the offense from the high post or the low post, but you could make the argument they are actually a more dangerous team without him. Not only has his absence allowed Sabonis to come into his own as a featured player, having a more athletic and more mobile big man at the 5 position is huge considering that they don't have a ton of elite athletes on the perimeter either.
2) Domantas Sabonis is special
Sabonis is a guy who really stands out when you see him in person. The biggest thing is how well he moves for 6'11 240. He's not a guy whose going to play at 11-12+ feet in the air, but he's an elite athlete for a guy with his size. He has the whole package - he's very quick, he's well put together, he has a great first step, he has a high motor and he plays with an edge. He actually picked up a flagrant foul against SMU when he cleared out one of the Mustangs guards with an elbow while fighting for a rebound. He's a tenacious rebounder whose not afraid of contact and he wasn't intimidated at all by the raucous home crowd at Moody. I mention that because the contrast with Wiltjer in the way that he handled the environment couldn't have been more telling.
Combine his size and athleticism with his skill-set and feel for the game and you have a guy with the chance to be a very special player. SMU couldn't really handle him on Saturday - he finished with 20 points, 16 rebounds and 3 assists on 14 shots. The interesting part about this match-up for Sabonis is while SMU didn't have anyone taller than 6'8, they had three 6'7+ combo forwards who have been dominating bigger frontlines all season. Given the way the league is going, the name of the game for bigger frontcourt players is that they need the athleticism to defend smaller players on the perimeter as well as the finishing ability to put them on their back and score over the top of them. Wiltjer doesn't have either of those things, which is why he finished with 4 points on 17 (!!) shots.
The strength of Sabonis game is his ability to make plays in the lane, whether it's bullying smaller players in the low post or facing up slower players in the high post. A 6'11+ player with touch, size and athleticism is going to be able to score a lot of points in the paint and there's only so much a defense can do to stop him. When he can pick apart a double team too, they are in an impossible bind. Sabonis made a couple of incredible plays on Saturday when he swooped across the lane, drew multiple defenders and kicked the ball out to an open shooter. Guys his size are not supposed to be on the passing end of a drive-and-kick.
All that said, there are two things holding him back from being an elite player at the next level:
1) Alligator arms. Sabonis only has a 6'10 wingspan, which makes him the rare frontcourt player with arms that aren't longer than his body. He only has an average reach and that absolutely kills him when it comes to protecting the rim. The shame of it is that he would be an absolutely ideal small-ball 5 with a 7'0+ wingspan because he has the quickness to defend smaller guards on the perimeter and the toughness to battle with bigger guys in the post and on the boards. The problem is that when your 5 has very little ability to alter shots it puts a ton of pressure on your other 4 defenders because you basically don't have a 2nd line of defense. If Sabonis is going to be a starter at the next level, he has to be paired with a rim protector, which brings us to problem #2.
2) He doesn't have great range on his jumper. Almost all the damage that Sabonis did on Saturday was in the paint and he didn't really look to shoot at all beyond 15+ feet. That's fine when paired with a guy like Wiltjer but Wiltjer's defense makes him practically unplayable at the next level and you can count the number of shot-blocking + 3-point shooting big men on one hand, which is why people have been calling them "unicorns". The good news is that Sabonis shoots 81.1% from the free-throw line (on 5.7 FTA's) so it shouldn't be inconceivable for him to be a good outside shooter. If he can become a consistent shooter, it would open up the rest of his game and make him practically indefensible. The lack of a jumper puts a real ceiling on his potential at the next level, which is why it probably makes sense for him to come back to school for his junior season.
Here's another way to look at it. If he can make that jumper (or maybe even knock down 3's), he could be an All-Star. Without it, he's coming off the bench as an energy 4/5 big man. That's how big a deal shooting ability has become at the highest levels of the game.
3) Kyle Wiltjer was born 5 years too late to play in the NBA
Wiltjer is a Wooden Award Candidate who has put up montrous numbers since transferring from Kentucky. (Here's how old he is - he was in the same recruiting class with Anthony Davis and Marquis Teague. Teague's entire NBA career has played out while Wiltjer has been in college). As a 5th-year senior, Wiltjer is averaging 22 points and 6.5 rebounds a game on 50.5% shooting and he's almost a prototype stretch 4 at the next level. At 6'11 240, he's big enough to stand behind guys in the post, he has the shooting ability to where he has to be guarded 25+ feet from the basket and he has enough versatility in his offensive game - whether it's attacking a close-out or playing with his back to the basket - to where he's not just a shooting specialist.
Here's the problem. What the league has figured out is that smaller players can shoot 3's just as well as stretch 4's while bringing a lot more to the table in terms of being able to defend on the perimeter and play with the ball in their hands. Conversely, the ability to stand behind guys in the post isn't nearly as important given the way that the league has moved away from throwing the ball inside to putting guards in ball screens as the primary way to generate offense in the half-court. Who cares about whether a 6'10 guy can win wrestling matches around the rim better than a 6'7 guy - the real question is whether he can get down in a stance and defend 25+ feet from the basket as well as the 6'7 guy.
Kyle Wiltjer has a lot of strengths in his game but sliding his feet from side to side certainly isn't one of them. He is literally as slow as molasses and you could time his 40-yard dash or his lane agility drill with a sundial. SMU was determined to not give him any space on offense and they went right at him on defense and there wasn't much he could do about it. And it's not like Jordan Tolbert, Markus Kennedy and Ben Moore are guaranteed to play at the next level. The types of 6'7+ guys that Wiltjer would have to face in the NBA are so much worse. Imagine Wiltjer trying to post up Harry Barnes or defend him on the 3-point line and you can see why he's probably destined for a long and successful career in Europe. That's the question you have to ask about pretty much any stretch 4 these days and it's not going to be a pretty answer for the vast majority of them.
A good way to think about it is that a stretch 4 needs Sabonis type athleticism to really thrive at the next level these days. The difference between Wiltjer and Sabonis in athleticism is about as wide as the difference between Sabonis and Aaron Gordon. We're talking about guys who are barely the same species.
4) Gonzaga is Transfer U
This year's team features two guys who started their careers at high-major schools - Wiltjer (Kentucky) and McClellan (Vanderbilt) - and Gonzaga has a long line of guys who have come to Spokane and given their careers new life under Mark Few. No matter what happens this season or even if they lose Sabonis to the NBA, the program won't fall off much next season, not with these two guys in the pipeline - Nigel Williams Goss (Washington) and Johnathan Williams III (Missouri).
Here's the numbers those guys put up at their previous stops:
NWG: 15.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists on 2.8 turnovers on 44.2% shooting, 25.6% from 3
JW3: 11.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 0.6 blocks on 41.2% shooting, 34.4% from 3
At 6'3 185, NWG is a fairly complete PG who was recruited by just about every school in the country. At 6'9 230, JW3 is the type of super bouncy big man that Gonzaga hasn't had too often in recent years. The really intriguing thing about those numbers is that NWG shot much better from 3 as a freshman and JW3 blocked a lot more shots. If the Gonzaga coaching staff can harness their games during this redshirt season, the rest of the WCC isn't going to know what hit them. Williams even said that one of the primary reasons why he chose Gonzaga was the way they developed Wiltjer and Kelly Olynyk during their redshirt seasons with the program. If Sabonis stays and gets to play with those 2 guys and a ton of shooters, they would have by far the highest ceiling of any team that Gonzaga has had under Mark Few.
5) Gonzaga is on the bubble
Gonzaga is 20-6 with a 12-2 record in the WCC but they haven't done all that much to impress the selection committee. Their best wins - Washington and UConn in the Battle 4 Atlantis - are over fellow bubble teams while they have come up just short to teams who could have punched their ticket with a win - Arizona, Texas A&M, UCLA and SMU. On the plus side, they don't have any bad losses as their two WCC losses came to the other traditional powers in the conference - BYU and St. Mary's - by a combined total of 4 points. Add it all up and a lot of the pundits have Gonzaga sweating if they lose in the WCC Tournament.
The funny part about it is that all their losses are pretty explainable and don't really say all that much about the overall quality of the team. This is a team with one of the best frontcourts in the country and they can play with just about anyone. Very few teams are going to run the table in conference play while Gonzaga was right there with some of the best teams in the country. They lost to A&M by 1, Arizona and UCLA by 5 and the loss to SMU was closer than the 9-point margin indicated. In a normal season, wins over Washington and UConn would be enough in and of themselves to get a mid-major program in the field of 68. It's just Gonzaga's bad luck that they came in relative down years for those programs.
6) How far could Gonzaga go in the Tourney?
The ironic thing is that Gonzaga actually has a team that's better equipped to make a Tourney run than many of their predecessors, even if they haven't been able to match their regular season results. The key is to look at their personnel. Gonzaga has as much size and athleticism as they have ever had on the perimeter (which isn't saying a ton), they have as good a shooting big man as they have ever had in Wiltjer and they have never had a player with a skill-set like Sabonis. They've had 13 guys who have at least had a cup of coffee in the NBA under Few and Sabonis should end up as the best of them. The only guy on his level is Olynyk and I like Sabonis a lot more as a two-way player, even if he never adds a consistent jumper.
Here's the basic formula for Gonzaga. Pound the ball into Sabonis, whether it's rolling to the rim or playing in the post, and use the threat of his offense to open up shots for Wiltjer and their guards. From there, control tempo and use your size to your advantage on offense and limit the number of possessions for the other team. They are going to want to avoid two things - a team with a 6'6+ athlete on the perimeter whose too big for Dranginis and teams with multiple 6'9+ frontcourt players who can match up with Wiltjer and Sabonis. What you saw in the loss to SMU is that there's no Plan C - none of the guards can really step up if either of their big men has an off night.
They would probably run into a team with the pieces to give them trouble in the 2nd week of the Tourney, if not the 1rst, but there's no guarantee given the overall weakness of the field this season. Sabonis is one of the most talented players in the country and they have the shooting to allow him to play 1-on-1 so they have a pretty high ceiling in a one-and-done scenario. Let's hope they can make the Tourney because they could make things real interesting if they get the right draw.