Gonzaga Basketball: 5 Predictions for Bulldogs in 2014 NCAA Tournament
Gonzaga University received an 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and what the Bulldogs accomplish out of that position is largely dependent on the play it gets from key members of its starting five.
With a first round of 64 date with Oklahoma State and a potential matchup with Arizona, Gonzaga certainly has its work cut out for it this March.
Coming off a year of rebuilding, Gonzaga will look to create a solid foundation to build on next season.
However if Gonzaga's frontcourt continues to dominate and the backcourt gets hot from beyond the arc, the Bulldogs can make a splash in the NCAA Tournament.
Przemek Karnowski Will Shine
Przemek Karnowski is in a great position to shine for Gonzaga in its round of 64 matchup with Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys have a fantastic backcourt led by Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, but one of their greatest weaknesses lies in the frontcourt.
I must say that Le’Bryan Nash is a very talented power forward in the model of recent Gonzaga graduate Elias Harris. However, at 6’7”, he is more likely to match up with Sam Dower than Karnowski.
After the Achilles injury to starting center Michael Cobbins earlier this season, Oklahoma State has had to rely on Kamari Murphy as the anchor of the frontcourt.
This has been met with less-than-stellar results; Murphy averaged just six points and 1.3 blocks per game.
Most importantly for Gonzaga, Murphy stands at just 6’8” and weighs just 220 pounds. Contrast that with Karnowski, who is 7’1” and 296 pounds, and there is a clear advantage in the frontcourt.
Karnowski has the size to bother any opposing frontcourt—even those that can measure up. The Bulldogs will almost certainly look to control the paint in this matchup.
The best news for Gonzaga is that this plays into the strategy the team has employed throughout West Coast Con play. The Bulldogs have the most dominant frontcourt in the WCC, and they have played the ball from inside out all season long.
I expect Karnowski to have a big, big game against the Cowboys, and it is plausible to think he could score upward of 20 points because of his matchup advantage and the offensive opportunities he'll find.
David Stockton Will Be the X-Factor
The difference-maker for the Bulldogs has been the recent emergence of David Stockton in the WCC Tournament.
Coach Mark Few has seemed insistent on playing Stockton all season, and that loyalty was finally rewarded as Stockton’s play seemed to jump to the next level.
Stockton was relentless on defense and instrumental on offense throughout the WCC Tournament. He ran the offense with precision and picked apart opposing defenses.
The Bulldogs need the clutch point guard who hit the game-winning shot against Santa Clara. They need the floor general and leader to show up. They need the crafty defender to bring his speed and generate steals.
If Stockton can play up to the level he reached during the WCC Tournament, Gonzaga has a much better opportunity to advance.
This is a double-edged sword because if Stockton reverts back to the defensive liability he was before he stepped up this postseason, the Bulldogs will be in a great deal of trouble.
The Bulldogs Will Defeat the Cowboys
According to ESPN’s Tournament Challenge National Bracket, 67 percent of entry brackets have Oklahoma State winning against Gonzaga.
I believe that 100 percent of the brackets touting the Cowboys will have that pick wrong come Friday.
Gonzaga can defeat Oklahoma State for a couple of key reasons.
As already discussed, Karnowski and Dower should dominate the paint. This plays well into the strategy that has worked for the Bulldogs in recent months.
I was initially wary of Oklahoma State because I assumed the ultra-athletic backcourt duo of Marcus Smart and Markel Brown drastically outmeasured that of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr.
Marcus Smart is 6’4” and Markel Brown is 6’3”. The type of guard that has dominated the Zags over the past few seasons has been upwards of 6’6”.
Don't get me wrong. I expect those two guards to score in bunches, but to expect them to carry the Cowboys through this matchup is preposterous.
Bell Jr. is arguably one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation, and Pangos has dramatically improved as a defender this season. While they may not be able to stop these two talented guards, I believe they can slow them down.
Finally, the Cowboys are not a dominant rebounding team. Poor rebounding has killed the Bulldogs all season, but the Cowboys average .5 fewer rebounds per game than the Bulldogs.
This is a minor difference, but the fact that the two teams average nearly the same number of rebounds per game means that the Zags will not be dramatically outrebounded.
Oklahoma State's inability to exploit this key weakness allows Gonzaga to compete in this game.
Gonzaga defeated Oklahoma State at Gallagher-Iba Arena last year in a close game, and I like the Bulldogs in a close game again on Friday.
Bulldogs Will Challenge Arizona
If Gonzaga can get past Oklahoma State, and Arizona also advances, I like Gonzaga’s chances to challenge the Wildcats in a tightly contested game.
Arizona is an amazing team. It is very well balanced, has recovered nicely from the loss of Brandon Ashley and almost all of the advanced stats regard Arizona as the top team in the nation.
That being said, Gonzaga has the right blend of frontcourt height and outside shooting to cause all sorts of problems for Arizona.
Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon have been an incredible frontcourt duo this season. They collectively average 22.2 PPG and 14.4 RPG.
This matches up with the production that Gonzaga has received from Karnowski and Dower (25.2 PPG and 14 RPG), and these two frontcourts will likely negate one another.
This game will be won and loss in the battle of the backcourts.
T.J. McConnell runs the Wildcats' offense with great efficiency, but the real star is Nick Johnson.
Johnson in the type of elite athlete that can wreak havoc on Gonzaga’s defense. I expect Gary Bell Jr. to guard Johnson well, but this will have to be a matter of containment.
In the end, Gonzaga will have to hope that its guards bury jump shots, because I do not see Gonzaga being able to slow down the relentless guards of Arizona.
Unless Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Drew Barham are able to light it up from beyond the arc, this is more than likely where Gonzaga’s season comes to an end.
Bulldogs Will Lay Groundwork for Next Season
This has been a rebuilding year for the Zags, and the fact that this team has been able to compete and make it to the NCAA Tournament is a testament to the stability of the program that Mark Few has built.
Call me an optimist, but next season’s roster has the potential to be even better than the team that was a top seed in the tournament last year.
Gonzaga will return senior guards Pangos and Bell Jr., junior center Przemek Karnowski and a bevy of talented bench players, including Kyle Dranginis, Gerard Coleman and Angel Nunez.
The featured addition for the Bulldogs will be redshirt junior Kyle Wiltjer. After transferring from Kentucky this offseason, there is a lot of buzz about the progress he has made.
The Bulldogs will also be adding some talented freshmen, including top-tier point guard recruit Josh Perkins and Lithuanian big man Domantas Sabonis.
A starting five that consists of Pangos, Bell Jr., Dranginis, Wiltjer and Karnowski could be the type of lineup that reaches a Final Four next season.
That is why this NCAA Tournament is so important for the Bulldogs.
If Few’s team can string together a few wins and surprise the nation, there will be a lot of buzz surrounding the team entering next season. the experience will simply add to the confidence of next year’s Bulldogs.