Does Gonzaga Deserve the No. 1 Title in the College Basketball Rankings?

Does Gonzaga Deserve the No. 1 Title in the College Basketball Rankings?

Editorial Board

As of Monday, January 30, a new team garnered the top spot in the latest NCAA men’s college basketball rankings, remaining the only undefeated team in Division I. But even at a perfect 24-0, does Gonzaga deserve to be ranked as the nation’s top team?

The counterargument is simple, but valid nonetheless. It has plagued the program’s credibility throughout their run of 18 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and established itself as a legitimate critique in the reality that the program has failed to reach a Final Four in any of those appearances. This argument is, of course, Gonzaga’s “strength of schedule.”

Playing in the WCC (West Coast Conference), Gonzaga will likely face only one other NCAA tournament calibre team over the duration of conference play in their two matchups with Saint Mary’s, the first of which the Zags won at home by a margin of 20 points. Although the team has certainly accumulated a few commendable wins in their non-conference schedule this year — knocking off elite programs like Iowa State, Florida, and Arizona — Gonzaga’s lack of exposure to elite competition night-in and night-out undermines the team’s unblemished record in the eyes of many.

Quite frankly, there’s nothing wrong with this argument. The teams jousting with Gonzaga for the No. 1 ranking — like Kansas and Louisville, among others — are facing NCAA tournament caliber  competition nearly every time they step on the floor playing in power conferences like the Big 12 and ACC, respectively. Given those circumstances, it would only be natural for even the best of teams to lose a game on occasion. In facing off against opponents like Pepperdine and Santa Clara, that same courtesy is not given. Blowing out competition of that calibre, as Gonzaga has, is nothing short of expectations for any of the nation’s top teams, let alone the No. 1 team.

Amidst this reality, how can the argument be made that the Gonzaga Bulldogs deserves the title of “best team in the country” if they aren’t being tested to the same extent as the other top contenders?

Aside from an unprecedented record, this year’s Gonzaga team has a facet which coach Mark Few has never seen to this great of an extent during the program’s 18 year run of success: incredible balance and depth.

Przemek Karnowski is the only player for Gonzaga attempting more than 25 percent of the team’s shots. This is a team that can easily withstand an off-night offensively from one, or more, Bulldogs. Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris largely dominated the offensive duties for the 2013 squad, which also garnered the No. 1 ranking at at the tail-end of the 2012-13 season and was subsequently awarded a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament that year. The same could be said for last season’s team, in which the offense flowed almost entirely through Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis.

This year’s squad, however, features several players who have solidified themselves as reliable scoring options, with four Bulldogs averaging more than 10 points a game. If Few isn’t rolling with his starting lineup of Nigel Williams-Goss, Josh Perkins, Jordan Mathews, Jonathan Williams and Karnowski all of whom have lead the team in scoring in at least one game this year he can look for notable offensive input from the likes of Silas Melson, Killian Tillie or Zach Collins coming off the bench.

Other top contenders cannot match the depth and balance presented by Gonzaga. Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham dominate Kansas’s offense, and freshman Josh Jackson has one of the nation’s highest usage rates. Kentucky’s Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox are the top two offensive options on any given possession for the Wildcats. Although Villanova does have four players attempting more than 20 percent of the team’s shots, Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson are likely the ones looking to create offense in key situations.

Additionally, this Gonzaga team has superb prowess on both sides of the ball. With no other team in Division I matching the Zag’s precision on both offense and defense, Few’s squad have solidified themselves as the most efficient team in the nation. A crucial element of this efficiency is the team’s overall defensive stinginess, which starts with a commitment to transition defense.

This Gonzaga team never attacks the glass with reckless abandon. Instead of searching for second-chances, the Zags have emphasized stopping the ball in transition. Since Williams and Collins are the only two Bulldogs who look to crash the glass on offense, the rest of the squad quickly flows back to prevent easy buckets.

That defensive intensity trickles down into the squad’s halfcourt defense, which is impressive along all aspects. Gonzaga holds their opponents to one of the lowest field goal percentages in the nation, emphasizing that the Bulldogs have the defensive capabilities to rival any of the power conference programs seeking a claim on the nation’s top spot in the rankings.

Another facet of this Gonzaga team that helps build their case for the title of No. 1 team in the country is Karnowski’s illusive passing touch.

One of the Bulldogs’ most significant shifts this season was the decision to run the offense from the post. The 7-foot-1 senior, Karnowski has the second-highest assist rate on the team, and his decision-making, touch, and court awareness have greatly enhanced the team’s offense.

Upon getting touches in the post, opponents are faced with the impossible decision of  single-covering Karnowski, or double teaming him in hopes the defense will recover quickly enough to challenge the shot attempt when he kicks out the ball. And since Few has enough shooters in his arsenal to space the perimeter — even Williams, a 6-foot-9 big, has a soft outside touch — Karnowski has plenty of options.

The senior’s passing acumen is an underrated aspect of Gonzaga’s game plan, one that we have not witnessed from the Gonzaga teams of old. This dynamic feature adds to the vast array of reasons why this team is deserving of the No.1 ranking in college basketball, despite their strength of schedule, and has a legitimate chance to garner Few that coveted first Final Four appearance in his 17 year tenure with the program.

Although the continuous stigma with Gonzaga over the past 18 years has been that their remarkable regular season performances in the WCC don’t translate to success in the NCAA tournament and therefore their exceptional record isn’t as impressive as it may seem, this Gonzaga team is special. The Miter Staff encourages you to hold Gonzaga accountable to their actions on the court, rather than the state of their respective conference when deciphering where they belong among college basketball’s best. Because at the end of the day, all the Bulldogs can do is go out and beat who is on the schedule. And at 24-0, nobody can deny they’ve done that.