Gonzaga Basketball: Bulldogs' Keys to Victory in Big Dance

Justin Onslow@@JustinOnslowNFLContributor IIMarch 17, 2013

March 11, 2013; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs players hoist the championship trophy after the game against the Saint Mary's Gaels in the finals of the West Coast Conference tournament at Orleans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Gonzaga Bulldogs are no longer everyone’s favorite sleeper. With a 31-2 record and some West Coast Conference hardware in tow, they are a front-runner in the NCAA tournament.

Ranked No. 7 in RPI with just two losses to its name, Gonzaga enters the Big Dance ranked No. 1 in the AP and USA Today polls. While that particular distinction will mean nothing when the selection committee makes its decisions for tournament seeding, Gonzaga has shown enough this season to warrant a top seed in the NCAA tournament.

With a 65-51 win over St. Mary’s in the WCC tournament, the Bulldogs are poised for a deep run in postseason play. Besting the rest of the field won’t be easy, though, and a lot will have to go right for Gonzaga in the Big Dance. Let’s take a look at the team’s keys to victory.

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Keeping it Simple

The Bulldogs are an experienced bunch with a proven track record. In the NCAA tournament, that experience will go a long way toward winning a championship.

Still, the bright lights of the Big Dance can catch even the most experienced teams off guard. For Gonzaga to be a true contender in the tournament, it will have to keep things simple.

Overthinking things in the tournament can spell disaster. Gonzaga has earned its 31-2 record by playing terrific defense and making a lot of shots. It seems oversimplified, but that’s the formula that will dictate how far the Bulldogs advance in postseason play.

Strength of schedule (No. 97) may play into the selection committee’s decision on Gonzaga’s seeding, but that number won’t matter in the tournament. Every game will be a true test, and earning a spot in the finals will come down to one opponent and one basketball.


Hand Warmers

It’s not hard to understand Gonzaga’s success this season. The Bulldogs lead the NCAA in field-goal percentage with an astounding 55.5 percent mark from the floor. Finding the hot hand (and keeping it hot) will be absolutely imperative in their quest for a title.

In Gonzaga’s 85-74 loss to Illinois on Dec. 8, the Bulldogs shot just 38 percent from the floor in the second half. A 60 percent first-half mark was negated by a lot of missed opportunities late in the game, and the Illini handed Gonzaga its first loss of the season in decisive fashion.

Every team has a different formula for success, but winning in the NCAA tournament comes down to the ability to play consistent offense and quality defense. Consistency for the Bulldogs means hitting a lot of shots.

Junior forward Kelly Olynyk has been outstanding this season, pacing the Bulldogs with 17.5 points per game and a 65.2 percent mark from the floor. Second-leading scorer Elias Harris (14.9 PPG) is shooting 51.7 percent from the field, and both players will have to keep their hot hand toasty to give Gonzaga a chance to chase the title in the NCAA tournament.


X-Factor: Guard Play

Olynyk and Harris have been the foundation on which Gonzaga has built a true contender, but the forwards can’t shoulder the entire offense in the tournament. The Bulldogs will need some help from their duo of terrific sophomore guards.

Kevin Pangos is averaging 11.5 points per game this season, and with a 42.2 percent success rate from behind the arc, he has the potential to put up plenty of points in the tournament. Gary Bell Jr. is the team’s fourth-leading scorer (9.2 PPG), and he too has been impressive from three-point range this season (39 percent).

Gonzaga’s high field-goal percentage is due in large part to the efficiency of Olynyk and Harris, but the kind of explosive scoring that can swing the momentum of a game will likely have to come from the Bulldogs’ combo of sophomore guards.

Bell has been a more consistent scorer from game to game, but it’s Pangos who has the potential to put the team on his back down the stretch. With five 20-plus-point efforts during the regular season, Pangos has established himself as a true scoring threat in the Bulldogs backcourt.


Be sure to print out your own copy of the NCAA tournament bracket, available free from Bleacher Report. Also, check out this live bracket, which will be updated throughout the tournament.