Gonzaga basketball is entering the pivotal weeks of the season as the team strives to answer some burning questions about its ability to make the NCAA tournament.
Mark Few will no doubt be asking himself these questions as well.
The key for the Bulldogs at this juncture is going to be not only continuing their positive trends this season, but they must also find a way to negate their weaknesses and better utilize their assets moving forward.
Gonzaga’s biggest game of the season is its matchup with the Memphis Tigers on Saturday.
This is the second straight season that the Bulldogs have played a marquis nonconference game in the midst of WCC play.
The Bulldogs are currently lacking a defining victory for their NCAA tournament resume. A road win at a top-tier opponent is just what they need to solidify their position in the field.
Getting a win at Memphis will be difficult, though, as the Tigers are in a similar need of a defining victory.
With a backcourt that features Joe Jackson, a 6’1” guard who averages 14.6 points per game, and a devastating frontcourt led by Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols, Memphis matches up incredibly well with Gonzaga.
Both teams have talented guards that largely cancel each other out, and for that reason, this game will more than likely be won in the paint by whichever frontcourt can impose its will.
Make no mistake, Gonzaga needs this victory to feel comfortable about receiving an at-large berth come Selection Sunday.
I have been hammering at this weakness all season long, but it appears that the trend of rebounding woes is likely to continue throughout the rest of the season.
Gonzaga ranks 120th in the nation in rebounds per game with just 36.5, and as a team that starts three players 6’2” or shorter, this is largely unsurprising.
Gonzaga can typically rely on big men Przemek Karnowski and Sam Dower to pull down a combined average of 14 rebounds each game, but after that, no player, besides occasional power forward Kyle Dranginis, averages more than four rebounds per game.
As I said, I do not think that there is likely to be a correction to this problem, and the best Gonzaga can hope for is to limit an opposing team’s offensive rebounds.
Since his arrival in Spokane, there has been no question that Przemek Karnowski has all the physical tools to succeed.
After a year-and-a-half in Gonzaga’s system, Karnowski is finally beginning to fulfill on the promise he has shown.
Karnowski is averaging 10.1 points per game, 7.4 rebounds per game and 1.8 blocks per game, and he is shooting 57.8 percent from the field.
Karnowski has come on in a big way in the past few games.
Gonzaga’s offense clicks when it is able to play inside-out offense with Karnowski on the block.
The most important aspect of Karnowski’s game that he has developed this season is his ability to defend the basket without committing fouls. This has been especially important considering Gonzaga’s dearth of depth behind him.
Gonzaga can consistently rely on its guards to keep the team in games, but it must continue to rely on Karnowski’s efforts in the paint to win those games.
Gerard Coleman averaged 13.2 points per game in for Providence in the Big East, arguably the best conference in college basketball at the time, two years ago.
I would venture to guess that he did not transfer to Gonzaga to play just 12.8 minutes per game off the bench.
There is no doubt that Coleman is a game changer when he is on the floor. His incredible athleticism can be shocking to opposing defenses, and his ability to get to the basket and finish with consistency adds an element to Gonzaga’s offense.
The issue with Coleman this season has been his inability to mesh with his teammates and run the offense efficiently.
Each time Coleman receives the ball on offense, his first instinct is to take the ball to the basket. This is great when he scores, but when he does not, it is detrimental to the team’s ability to run a smooth offense to find high percentage shots.
If Coleman wants to find more minutes this season, he would do well to find his teammates shots and be a source of energy off the bench in terms of rebounding, winning loose balls and showing off his athleticism in transition.
If he cannot get out of the habit of forcing the ball to the basket without running the team’s offense, I do not know why Mark Few would look to give him more minutes.
Gonzaga has a record of 20-3 and sits atop the WCC by more than two games. And yet, the Bulldogs are far from guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament.
According to ESPN, Gonzaga is currently ranked 25th in RPI. That being said, the Bulldogs have just one RPI Top 50 win against BYU, and the team’s loss to Portland, who is ranked 159 in RPI, is a very sore spot on its resume.
It's beginning to look as if Gonzaga will have the top seed in the WCC Tournament, which would go a long way toward ensuring it wins the conference’s automatic bid to March Madness.
However, if Gonzaga is unable to secure a win against Memphis on Saturday and ends the season without the automatic berth to the NCAA tournament, it is going to be an uneasy Selection Sunday on the bubble.