Is Gonzaga a genuine national title contender?
When Elias Harris burst onto the scene for Gonzaga more than three years ago now, scoring 17 points in a loss to No. 2-ranked Michigan State on Nov. 17, 2009, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas couldn’t stop raving about him.
Bilas played four years at forward under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and has spent many more watching the game. He’ll be the first to tell you, though, in his hilarious self-effacing way, that the springy Speyer, Germany native has a bit more bounce to his game.
Bilas is certainly no slouch when it comes to analysis — in fact, he’s one of the better ones out there. So when he proclaimed that Harris had the sort of big-play potential, even as a freshman, to push the 2009-10 Gonzaga Bulldogs past the Sweet 16 and into the Elite 8 (at least) for the first time since Mark Few took the reins from Dan Monson in 1999, college basketball fans perked their ears.
Yet that season would end like so many have in recent years, with Gonzaga suffering a blowout loss to a big-time program from a power conference.
Facing off against Syracuse in the Round of 32, Gonzaga was swept away by the sweet shooting of Andy Rautins (24 points, 5-of-9 from three) and Wes Johnson’s overpowering athletic dynamism (34 points, 14 rebounds.) The 22-point margin of defeat felt much, much worse.
Harris poured in 24 points to lead the Zags, and also added eight rebounds, but it wasn’t nearly enough. They’d need more if they were going to breach this final gap and barrel toward the tournament’s final weekend.
Just one year earlier, Gonzaga had crashed out against eventual national champion North Carolina, this time in the Sweet 16.
The entire Spokane campus had been buzzing for about a week in the run up to the Tar Heels tilt — hitting a game-winner against Western Kentucky, which Demetri Goodson had done in the previous round, tends to do that — and there was a heady sense of anticipation as GU students piled into Crosby Student Center for a screening of the game.
Then, when Carolina wrenched control of the game within minutes, overpowering the Zags just as Memphis had done in February, the mood turned from jubilant, to listless, and finally subdued.
Of course it’s hardly embittering to see your season come to term against a team littered with future NBA first-rounders (those Tar Heels had five of ‘em, as well as future San Antonio Spurs steadyman Danny Green), but the defeat seemed to signal a worrisome tendency to capitulate when faced against title contenders.
Had Gonzaga peaked as a program under Few? Did this spate of tournament disappointments amount to comprehensive proof? Sure, these Bulldogs waxed the floor in conference play — they’d been doing that since the days of Dickau and Calvary — but what about when it really mattered? The brutal non-conference schedule, concocted to prepare the Zags for March, never seemed to pay dividends.
There was the epic meltdown against UCLA in the 2006 Sweet 16, where the Bruins wiped away a 13-point halftime deficit and scored the last 11 points of the game, creating the indelible image of Adam Morrison reduced to tears. Morrison had been the co-national player of the year in ’05-06; what did it say that the Zags couldn’t crack the Elite Eight with that ace in the hole?
Two years later came Stephen Curry’s one-man show in the Round of 64, helping unsung Davidson upset the Zags on its improbable run to the Elite Eight. Then there were the afore-mentioned losses to Carolina and ‘Cuse.
By the time Jimmer Fredette and BYU band dismantled the Zags in Denver in 2011’s Round of 32, it seemed like the script had been etched in stone. Top individual performances (with the exception perhaps of Gonzaga’s sheer unraveling against UCLA) by top-tiered players always appeared to do the Zags in. Did they simply lack the right type of player to galvanize his teammates and fire an extended run?
Obviously, it takes more than one player to win a championship. But take Carmelo off of ’03 Syracuse, take Emeka Okafor away from UConn one season later, take Anthony Davis away from last season’s Kentucky. Do those teams still win titles?
For all of Gonzaga’s success, for all of its work to eviscerate our previous notions of exactly what a ‘mid-major’ program could be — they have their own specific Nike duds, normally a hallmark of a big-time school, for gosh sake — for all its dominance in the West Coast Conference, it simply ran into a wall against bigger, more athletic teams (North Carolina, Syracuse) or ones that boasted individuals capable of sensational performances (Davidson, BYU).
The trend seemed set to continue. But then came the 2011-12 season.
Jerry Krause has led one of the more interesting lives in the history of college basketball. In his 70s now, he’s found a home in the greater Northwest with Gonzaga, where he works as Director of Basketball Operations.
He might possess some radical notions when it comes to basketball — he wants to raise the rim in the NBA to 12 feet — but you can’t knock the guy’s success.
Krause first rose to prominence in the greater Northwest as the resuscitator of Eastern Washington’s (then Eastern Washington State University) flagging men’s basketball program. He led the Eagles to a 262-196 (.572) record over 17 years, before heading to Gonzaga for his first time in the mid-1980s. His two stints in Spokane are bridged by a run in West Point, where he was a professor of sport philosophy and director of instruction for the department of physical education.
He’s written best-selling books about basketball, and devised a standardized testing system for rims in every Division 1 arena. In 1987, he helped usher the three-point shot into college basketball as chairman of the NCAA rules committee.
(At that time, Mark Few was a graduate student at Gonzaga, and with Krause as his advisor, Few wrote his thesis on the effect of the three-pointer in the collegiate game.)
Suffice to say, Krause knows his stuff when it comes to the game. What he’s most preoccupied with now, when he’s not working tirelessly as Gonzaga’s Director of Basketball Operations (he also charts in-game statistics for the team, sitting on the bench next with the coaching staff, sporting his iconic sweater vest) he is wholly devoted toward teaching the game.
He doesn’t think there’s enough instruction at the grassroots level, so he takes pride in Gonzaga players who show an active interest in mastering the fundamentals (he’s a disciple of John Wooden) and improving during their time on campus.
When I spoke to Krause at length last April for the school newspaper, one month after he’d watched Gonzaga bow out to Ohio State in the NCAA tournament Round of 32 (73-66 in Pittsburgh), he was giddy about the direction the program was headed.
The exuberance began with that season’s freshman class, which has since diminished (forward Ryan Spangler transferred to the University of Oklahoma). Krause credited the group (which now consists of Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, Jr. and Kyle Dranginis) of “changing the culture” of the program.
With the near miss against Ohio State (did you see how closely Pangos’s final three of the game came to falling through the net?), Gonzaga looked closer than ever to smashing through the wall that had divided them from serious success in March.
Those freshmen (now sophomores) had an insatiable desire to learn, and according to Krause it has permeated the program. “They have improved us as a teaching and learning community,” Krause told me. “They’ve made us more of a learning group, and when you do that, not only do you improve, but you have fun. It’s more satisfying. It’s just better.”
It comes as little surprise that Gonzaga has redshirted 20 players during Few’s tenure. When players come in with the mindset that they’ll sponge up knowledge as opposed to blowing up SportsCenter for a few years before jettisoning to the NBA draft, it makes for a more valuable experience, Krause believes.
Obviously, that isn’t for everyone, and Gonzaga has struggled in recent years to find an apt identity for its team. There have been talented scorers who’ve taken off for the NBA (Austin Daye), as well as a spate of transfers (Mathis Keita, Mathis Monninghoff, Demetri Goodson and Mangisto Arop) and bad character fits for the program (Bol Kong).
But even during those relatively trying years (success still came), there have been rocks amid the swirling storm.
Krause effused about Rob Sacre’s growth as a player during his redshirt-enhanced five years in Spokane. By the time Sacre had departed (he’s now known for two-stepping on the Los Angeles Lakers sideline), he’d gone from lead-footed project to steady low-post scorer, and a guy who could guard almost every position the court — he made waves for his ball-screen switches onto guards during last season’s WCC tournament.
Now, enter Kelly Olynyk.
- Olynyk. (Photo courtesy of Ben Margot/AP.)
Perhaps no player in America has made the same impact on the national media this season as ‘Big Kelz’, who went from near afterthought at forward to potential lottery pick — this summer — in a mere matter of games. There are cases being made that he deserves mention in the Player of the Year discussion.
It came out of nowhere. In his first two seasons, Olynyk didn’t once top 20 points in a game.
This season, he’s eclipsed that total eight times and become the first Zag to post consecutive 30-point games (against Santa Clara and Saint Mary’s in early January) since Adam Morrison. As if to cement the comparison, the two sport like-minded locks.
Yet without a serious twist of fate, we might never have seen this new-and-improved showing from the Canadian big.
After seeing limited minutes during his freshman and sophomore campaigns, Olynyk thought briefly about transferring, but even after deciding to stick it out in Spokane the jam-packed front court (Sacre, Harris, Spangler, Sam Dower) couldn’t have helped his confidence much.
Then during practice in early November, Olynyk fell awkwardly after a jump and landed on his head, resulting in a concussion. Facing an extended period of recuperation, he decided to take a redshirt year — a rarity for a kid entering his junior year at a high-major program.
Olynyk quickly poured himself into maximizing his year away from D1 action.
He worked with GU strength coach Travis Knight to shore up his core strength. Knight can’t believe how far the Kamloops, British Columbia product has come since he first arrived on campus in ’09 with next-to-no upper-body strength.
“About half of what we did was lift, hard and heavy, on every body part, until he couldn’t lift his arms,” Knight told Bud Withers of the Seattle Times. “The other half was developing his neural system, the communication between his brain and hands and legs and feet.”
Olynyk gave the first-team fits during practice, when he would assume the role of the other team’s best player for GU’s scout team. Few told Withers that he’d have to remind Olynyk to stay in his role, so frequent was his tendency toward improvised, self-generated rim-wrecking.
When he’s playing as the other team’s top big man in practice, he’s just been going to work on us,” Bulldogs swingman Mike Hart told me after a conference game last season. “It’s a tough match up for us, and it’s good to see him growing as he’s taking this year off from playing, but getting a lot better.”
The results followed the work in due course (previous link). On top of myriad agility drills, Olynyk beefed up his upper-body strength and increased his vertical leap by seven inches (32”).
I covered GU’s conference games for the school newspaper, and after churning out my game recaps in the Kennel (McCarthey Athletic Center) media room, it wasn’t a rarity to see Olynyk on the court with an assistant or graduate student, hoisting jumpers hours after the game had ended and everyone had gone.
On top of improving his shooting range, Olynyk was also hard at work developing a go-to jump-hook, which has been on full display this season.
During the course of last season, Gonzaga’s coaching staff couldn’t wait for Olynyk to hit the court in ’12-13. Krause raved about the active role he’d taken toward learning, and the leadership role he’d assumed. Assistant coach Ray Giacoletti stressed what a blessing in disguise it had been that Olynyk could redshirt midway through his collegiate career, as opposed to right off the bat.
“About 50 percent of [players] don’t make it worthwhile; then the other 50 percent really try to find a way to make it work — Kelly’s one of those guys in the second group,” Giacoletti told me last year. “He’s done an unbelievable job. There’s days where he’s getting three workouts in a day. I think by playing two years and kind of understanding what’s to be expected on the floor, and then to take a year and sit on the bench and watch, you learn so much. He knows exactly what he needs to do to get better.”
Though he made more waves for his outsized bow ties as he sat on the bench last year, Olynyk took it upon himself to chart in-game statistics for the GU big men, and he wasn’t afraid to let the posts know when they were slacking.
“He lets you know if you’re not rebounding, or if you’re getting outworked by another guy, so he pretty much keeps the hard-core stats where, if we’re getting beat on rebounds, he’s gonna start griping at us and tell us we need to pick it up,” Spangler told me. “Then if the other team’s posting us up deep or just scoring on us easy, he’s going to tell us how to try and get better and not let them do it.”
That feverish dedication paid dividends. The new-and-improved Olynyk on display for national audiences this season is perhaps one of the most fascinating transformations in recent memory.
One thinks of the career arc of Wisconsin’s Brian Butch, a McDonald’s All American out of high school who redshirted his freshman year to bulk up for the rigors of Big 10 play, but Lamar Odom might be a more fitting comparison.
Like Odom, Olynyk grew up playing point guard until a serious growth spurt in high school sent him down into the post. That familiarity with perimeter play, coupled with his stature, attracted him as a prospect to Few. But whereas in earlier seasons Olynyk was frequently out-muscled in the post and a step too slow on the perimeter, this season he has become a revelation.
Olynyk is the sort of chess piece Gonzaga has lacked in recent memory. He’s as versatile a threat as Few has ever had — able to bang in the post like Ronny Turiaf as well as possessing the ability to draw his defender out to the perimeter seen like Josh Heytvelt. Both those players were limited — Turiaf a pure post, Heytvelt unable to mix it up with the best bigs in America. Olynyk can do both.
He has roared into a Gonzaga lineup that may be the most dangerous Few has ever boasted. The coach won’t be drawn into answering questions about whether this is his best bunch since ‘99, reserving judgment until season has run its course, but it seems logical to assume that no Zags team has ever been this dangerous.
After missing the first three games of this season due to an unspecified breach of the Gonzaga University honor code, Olynyk took to the court against Clemson in the Old Spice Shootout in Orlando, Fla and scored 13 points in a 57-49 win.
His team-leading 18.9 points per game — coming off an absurd 65 percent field goal percentage — and 7.0 rebounds in just 25.3 minutes a night (ESPN), are a major reason Gonzaga ranks fifth in Ken Pomeroy’s latest batch of adjusted offensive rankings.
To compare, in Heytvelt’s senior season (2008-09), he averaged 14.9 points on 54.4 percent shooting. Turiaf hovered around 52 percent of the floor during his four seasons (’01-05), and though Sacre dramatically improved upon his 44 percent shooting as a frosh, he never came close to cresting 55 percent (stats courtesy of ESPN).
What Olynyk is doing is not only unprecedented, it’s unreal. He isn’t parking under the basket for chip shots, or doing his damage with a succession of dunks. Though he’s only taken 17 three-pointers through 18 games this season (he’s hit 7), Olynyk does most of his damage through a dizzying medley of mid-range shots and powerful drives to the basket that leave his opponents flat-footed.
“I have the ability to score inside way more than before,” Olynyk recently told John Blanchette of The Spokesman Review (previous link). “That’s a huge aspect of my game because it’s something really tough to guard, especially at my height. Now with the body I have, I don’t get bumped off the ball and my balance has improved.”
That insatiable thirst toward learning and self-betterment has become infectious, with the current crop of players serious about putting team first — a notion that might have caused some serious eye-rolling when Daye was hoisting jumpers on the perimeter during his two seasons (’07-09).
Take Bell, for example. He might be the most high-profile recruit Few’s ever gotten at Gonzaga, but you’d never know it from talking to him.
Even with a chorus of national media asking whether he’s regressed this season (his scoring has dipped from 10.4 points in ’11-12 to 9.0 this season, and his shooting percentage is hovering at 41.4 percent after he posted a 50 percent clip last season), the sophomore guard has remained unnerved.
Bell has every right to push back against the critics, but he decides to pour that energy into games instead, where he’s become Gonzaga’s premier lock-down defender.
Last season, Bell shared the duty of guarding the other team’s top scorer with small forward Guy Landry Edi, but a combination of ineffectiveness and recent injury have rendered the Ivorian an afterthought in ’12-13 (he’s recently been fighting off an ankle injury). Thus, Bell lines up against the likes of BYU scorer extraordinaire Tyler Haws.
His length and athleticism make him a nightmare for a scorer accustomed to having his way on the offensive end of the court. In Gonzaga’s one-point loss against Butler on Jan. 19, Bell switched onto freshman guard Kellen Dunham midway through the game after Dunham had sprung for 14 points through the first 25 minutes of play at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
With Bell hounding him, it’s no surprise that Dunham didn’t score the rest of the way. Ditto for Haws, the heir apparent to Jimmer in Provo, and holder of the top-scoring game in Division 1 this season after his 42-point explosion against Virginia Tech.
In the Jan. 24 match up between BYU and Gonzaga in Spokane, Haws was a shell of his whirlwind self. He managed a paltry point on 0-of-9 shooting in an 83-63 beat down by the Zags.
In a nail-biter against the University of San Diego last Saturday night, Bell hounded Toreros top scorer Johnny Dee during crucial possessions down the stretch of a 65-63 victory.
USD head coach (and former Zags assistant) Billy Grier did everything in his power to free up the sharp-shooting Dee for a good luck, but point guard Christopher Anderson simply could not get Dee the ball — Bell’s preventive defense was that good.
One almost wonders why Few hasn’t made the argument in his post-game pressers that Bell’s defensive exploits are the near-equivalent of a 30-point offensive explosion.
The scariest thing, perhaps, about that loss to Ohio State last March is that the 2011-12 Zags were, in all fairness, a year away from really competing. (Bell scored a team-high 18 points in that game, if there were any questions about his big-game ability.)
This season, Gonzaga has put the nation on notice, and barring a troublesome home loss to Illinois (Brandon Paul the latest superb scorer to torch them), they’ve been dominant in wins over several very good teams — back-to-back wins against Baylor (at home) and Oklahoma State (away) stand out.
But Bell’s sterling defensive work this season is one of the best embodiments of this ‘new culture’ Krause raves about. So his offensive production has dipped somewhat? If the Zags make a run to the Final Four, guess how much Bell will care about his per-game point total.
Many will point to Paul’s explosion at the Mac as evidence that Gonzaga may still be prone to early-round exits, particularly given Illinois’ recent dip (the Illini have lost five of their last seven games).
There’s certainly a case for that argurment,, but at a certain point one must simply tip his cap to an excellent individual performance. Think of Gerry Macnamara’s three-point barrage against Kansas in the ’03 NCAA championship game. S— happens in college basketball.
We won’t know Gonzaga’s true potential until tourney time, but they’ve got a believer in USF head coach Rex Walters. The former Kansas guard says this year’s team is the best he’s seen in his five seasons at the helm of the Dons.
“They have a lottery pick in Olynyk, and he didn’t play great tonight,” Walters told Jim Meehan of The Spokesman Review (previous link) after a 66-52 loss. “Harris (15.1 points) is a high-level pro, Pangos (11.4 points, 3.4 assists) is a high-level pro, but it’s really simple when you have a lottery pick you become a lot better team. And that’s what he is, I really believe that. First time I’ve said that about a West Coast Conference player.
“And they’ve got guys … I give Michael Hart a hard time about how we guard him. I love him. He’s the toughest kid they have on their team. They have great role players. They’ve owned their roles.”
A transcendent talent surrounded by several top-tier Division 1 players, buffeted by a host of role players who own their roles? It’s combined to boost the Zags to a 21-2 (8-0 WCC) record through the start of February, and a No. 6 ranking in the latest AP poll.
Sounds like the makings of a perfect recipe for cutting down the nets in Atlanta.