Transfer Strategy Pays Dividends as Gonzaga Finally Advances to NCAA Final Four

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 26, 2017

One of the most exasperating narratives in men's college basketball is mercifully dead. In its 19th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, Gonzaga is going to the Final Four.

The top-seeded Bulldogs drained a dozen three-pointers and were in control from start to finish in Saturday night's 83-59 win over No. 11 Xavier in San Jose, California.

A lot has changed since their first trip to a regional final in 1999. Back then, Gonzaga was the plucky underdog—the Cinderella story that enthralled the nation by upsetting three straight major-conference programs before falling just short against the eventual national champions, UConn.

This time around, the Zags were the big bad bullies, using a roster full of future pros to put an end to Xavier's dream of becoming one of the unlikeliest Final Four teams ever.

As Sam Vecenie of Sporting News noted on Twitter, this squad has significantly more talent than it did in its days of shocking the world with the likes of Casey Calvary and Matt Santangelo:

The biggest reason for that transformation was head coach Mark Few's aggressive use of the transfer market, bringing in former major-conference players Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Jordan Mathews (California) and Johnathan Williams (Missouri).

As a result, Gonzaga finds itself in waters uncharted by any other program.

Whether you want to call it an epidemic or just a new way of life, transferring has become an integral part of college basketball's offseason news cycle. More than 700 D-I players have transferred in each of the past two years, and we're already drowning in reports of players who have decided to move elsewhere this summer.

But while that trend has grown exponentially over the past decade, it hasn't resulted in much tournament success. Gonzaga will be just the seventh team since 2007 to reach the Final Four with a former transfer in its starting five, and it is the first to do so with multiple transfers.

Final Four Teams with D-I Transfers in Starting Lineup
YearTeamTransfer(s)Finish?
2007Ohio StateRon LewisLost Title Game
2011VCUJamie SkeenLost in Final Four
2012LouisvilleChris SmithLost in Final Four
2013Wichita StateMalcolm ArmsteadLost in Final Four
2016OklahomaRyan SpanglerLost in Final Four
2016SyracuseMichael GbinijeLost in Final Four
2017GonzagaNigel Williams-Goss, Johnathan Williams III, Jordan MathewsTBD
B/R

To put it lightly, Gonzaga would be hopelessly lost without the players it helped find a second home.

Earlier this month, Williams-Goss was named one of the 15 finalists for the Wooden Award after leading the one-loss Bulldogs in points (16.5), assists (4.7) and steals (1.8) per game. He did all three of those things against Xavier, scoring a game-high 23 points and pulling down eight rebounds for good measure.

"It's just been such a crazy journey," Williams-Goss told Lewis Johnson of TBS after the game. "From transferring and sitting out, all the hard work, the patience it took to get here."

One teammate who fully appreciates that sentiment was the one who might have been even more impressive against the Musketeers. Aside from shooting 2-of-8 from the free-throw line, Williams was an unstoppable force in the paint, finishing with 19 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.

Meanwhile, Mathews tied for third on the team in scoring in the Elite Eight with 11 points. He was the one consistent source of offense through the first three rounds. The only graduate-transfer of the bunch has now scored in double figures in each tournament game.

Add it all up and Gonzaga's trio of transfers darn near outscored Xavier, tallying 53 points compared to the 59 of the Musketeers.

The transfers aren't the entire story, of course. There's also fifth-year senior and beard-growing aficionado Przemek Karnowski. That 300-pound mountain of a man has a pair of excellent sidekicks in the paint in freshmen Zach Collins and Killian Tillie. Factor in the solid perimeter play of Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, and the Zags have one heck of an eight-man rotation that had one of the most dominant regular seasons of the past 15 years.

Now that this "mid-major" is in the Final Four, though, can it finish the job?

As impressed as we are with this achievement, if Gonzaga loses to either Florida or South Carolina in the next round, you just know the haters will try to say this was one of the weakest runs to the Final Four. They'll say that the Zags didn't deserve their No. 1 seed, that they benefited from some questionable officiating in the second and third rounds and that they were lucky to draw a No. 11 seed in the Elite Eight instead of a title contender like Kentucky or Oregon.

But a national championship would shut those people up and instead spark a debate about whether this is one of the greatest teams in college basketball history.

If they win it all, the Bulldogs would be 38-1 with 11 wins over teams that at least made it to the second round of the tournament. They won 21 consecutive gamesmore than half of the entire seasonby a double-digit margin and were one second-half letdown against BYU away from an undefeated season.

Doing all that while led by three new transfers only makes the feat that much more impressive.

         

Stats are courtesy of KenPom.com and Sports-Reference.com.

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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