Nearing the halfway point of the WCC schedule, the Zags find themselves in their familiar spot of first place. However, at times this year, the Zags have shows an Achilles heel or two along the way—and have just been fortunate that these have come in their non-conference schedule.
In order for the Zags to win their 11th regular-season division championship in the last 12 years, there are a few key components that will be critical to their success or failure:
1) Ignore the Media
The Zags should avoid reading (or at least believing) any of the press. When it's good, they can fall to a team that they should beat. If its bad, they seem to believe it, and start a mini-slide. One of the key factors to judge if they aren't being "themselves" is the color of Coach Few's face at the eight or 10-minute mark of the first half.
If it's in the crimson-spectrum, somebody forgot their identity—or their assignment. The Zags need to know they are better than the opponent, and play like it. It may sound like a cliche, but with such a young bench in a tightening division—it still fits.
2) Show Their Age
The Zags start three Seniors, supported by a couple of strong Juniors. These guys need to play like it. If you've watched the games I have, you've seen the occasional lapses, the showboat plays, and the occasional "what the..?" moments.
Yes, this is the college game, but these guys should show what four yrs of a Few-caliber team can do. No more silly mistakes. Knowing where you are on the floor, what the score is, etc. Think of Chris Webber in the NCAA Championship, and then do the opposite.
3) Never forget a lesson
These Bulldogs have played some tough games. They've lost some heart-breakers. With one or two fewer lapses (see No. 2) they've had beaten Connecticut in Seattle, which could have set the tone.
As it stands, they bookended it with a couple other losses, and in order to get through their conference and the dance, they need to remember the losses. Not just the punch in the gut from the loss, but the "make one more pass", "finish", and "fundamentals" lessons from along the way.
4) Love the bulls-eye
The past decade has put Gonzaga near the top of D-1 ball. This means that every team will be out to get them. In their division, they are now the only game that counts. Many of the teams aren't going to any tourneys—but want a piece of the big dog to make their season.
Used to be the Dogs could sneak up on people, now they have to make sure no one sneaks up on them. The Zags can be like Rocky Balboa against Clubber Lang in the final bout - each punch the opponent throws, the Zags just smile and say "You ain't so bad!"
5) Bouldin. Downs. Daye.
Sure, Pargo and Heytvelt are the easy picks for key players, but from my perspective these three are the engine that makes things go.
Bouldin can either be the stabilizing force, or the disruptive one. When he's making plays, the Zags are usually winning.
Downs fills in the gaps, and plays at 10,000 rpm every time he's in there. His fire is infectious, and the Zags need that spark.
Daye's the wild card. Every so often, he's two years from High School—then suddenly he's two years from going pro. He can take over a game, crash the glass, and finish with authority. His ability to transition from Sophomore role player to Junior leader will be a huge factor in the length of the Bulldogs season.
6) Finish him!
In the old Mortal Kombat games, when you had an opponent beaten down, the game would say, "Finish him!!" This is exactly what the Zags need to do. Develop that killer instinct for every game.
In some games we've seen it, but not all. In today's bout with San Diego, it was there. In Thursday night's game, the Zags couldn't put away a team who lost their best scorer to injury.
Sure it's a long season, but the Zags only have eight games left before the WCC Tourney.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs are in great position to keep playing deep into March (or even April). However, the factors above will play a significant role. There are three angry teams within two games of the Zags. Each one of them is good enough to exploit any weakness that is shown.
It really comes down to the fundamentals: Forget your last game. Focus on the challenge at hand. Fill the lane. Finish your opponents.