No. 2 Gonzaga could be better than squad that reached No. 1
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) Gonzaga, one of the original mid-major noisemakers, made a big splash two years ago by reaching No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 and earning a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
This year's team, up to No. 2 in the latest poll, has a chance to be even better.
These Bulldogs may not have athletic big men like Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris, but they are deeper, have more ways to score and have been through the grinder that comes with facing their opponents' best shot every night.
''This team has guys who can score in different ways,'' senior guard Kevin Pangos said. ''There are not so many role guys, as guys who can do everything.''
Gonzaga (23-1, 11-0 West Coast) has five players who score in double figures and the production barely drops off when the starters come out. Everyone on the roster, it seems, can score and do a little bit of everything.
Another difference from the 2012-13 squad is experience.
Being No. 1 and the pressure that comes with it was all new to the Bulldogs two years ago.
This year's team knew the expectations were coming and embraced them, in part because four of the players had been through it before: Pangos, Gary Bell Jr., Kyle Dranginis and Przemek Karnowski all played on the 2012-13 team.
''It was a bit surreal,'' Pangos said, referring to the end of that season. ''We expected it going into this year.''
And they have a shot to get to the top spot again.
Gonzaga is the bully of the West Coast Conference, a lightly regarded league of private schools that the Bulldogs are once again dominating. Critics often point to a soft league schedule as an advantage for Gonzaga, one that teams from power conferences do not have. Gonzaga is listed eighth in the latest RPI.
Top-ranked Kentucky is more likely to lose in coming weeks than are the Bulldogs, who went undefeated and largely unchallenged through the first half of the WCC slate. Gonzaga has eight regular-season games left, all against teams it has already beaten in what is turning out to be a down season for the league.
Coach Mark Few said his team has a great ability to focus on the present.
''We haven't really let our guard down,'' Few said. ''We've gotten sloppy at the end of some games. Pepperdine, it was just missing free throws and a pretty poor defensive effort in the second half. But we have four more games on the road against inspired teams in front of sell-out crowds. So that's to be continued.''
Gonzaga's top offensive weapon this year has been Kyle Wiltjer, a transfer from Kentucky who leads the team with an average of 15 points per game. The 6-foot-10 Wiltjer is effective inside but is also shooting 44 percent from 3-point range and 80 percent from the free throw line.
Pangos, a Wooden Award candidate, averages 12 points and is shooting 46 percent from 3-point range. He's also dished out 115 assists against only 30 turnovers.
Karnowski, a 7-1 center from Poland, is averaging 11 points and 6 rebounds per game.
Byron Wesley was last year's leading scorer and rebounder for Southern California, but transferred as a graduate student to Gonzaga for his final season so he could make the NCAA tournament. He's averaging 10 points and 5 rebounds.
Freshman Domantas Sabonis, son of Arvydas, is the fifth player averaging double figures at 10 points per game. He leads the team with seven rebounds per game despite coming off the bench.
Overall, Gonzaga averages 80.9 points per game while allowing opponents just 60.2.
The 2012-13 team finished 32-3 after losing in the NCAA tournament to Wichita State. Olynyk became a lottery pick and Harris played briefly with the Los Angeles Lakers and now plays in Germany.
A big difference this year is the emergence of Wiltjer, Few said.
''He just adds a different dimension with that skill package he brings,'' Few said. ''The way we're moving the ball is vastly different than (2013), although that team was extremely efficient on offense, too.''