King’s Court: Gonzaga Flying Under Radar, Too Good for Another Early Flameout

NEW YORK — Away from the fans and the media, behind the doors of locked gyms whose locations are well-guarded, the narratives of the college basketball season to come are revealed.

Usually held at a neutral site in late October, “secret scrimmages” give coaches an opportunity to assess their team against outside competition without having to deal with scrutiny from onlookers.

The NCAA discourages participants from commenting publicly about the gatherings, but after Gonzaga whipped his Texas squad in a scrimmage in Phoenix last month, Rick Barnes could hardly stay hush-hush about the Bulldogs.

“They were amazing,” the Longhorns coach said. “They looked like a team that was three-fourths of the way through its season.”

One month later, college basketball fans are saying the same thing.

Well, at least the ones who are paying attention.

While Kentucky, Duke and Wisconsin are absorbing their well-deserved praise, not nearly enough people are talking about a Gonzaga unit that has won its first four games by an average of 42 points.

Mark Few’s team is good—Final Four good.

The backcourt of seniors Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. may be the best in the country. Transfers Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky) and Byron Wesley (USC) have blended in seamlessly on the wing, and post players Domantas Sabonis and Przemek Karnowski are a load in the paint.

“It’s crazy how many weapons we have,” Wesley said.

Six Gonzaga players average double figures in scoring, and the Bulldogs are the only team in the nation to rank among the NCAA’s top 10 in field-goal percentage (56.1) and field-goal percentage defense (30.8).

“Everyone knows our name,” Bell Jr. said. “But I don’t think people see how hungry we are. They won’t know that until they play us. I think sometimes we get underrated a little bit.”

More than anything, it may be skepticism.

Tempting as it is to get excited about the Zags, it’s also easy to remember what happened two years ago, when Few’s squad entered the NCAA tournament as America’s No. 1-ranked team only to lose to Wichita State in the third round.

Gonzaga has won a conference title 12 of the last 13 years, but only once in the past eight seasons has it advanced to the Sweet 16.

In some ways the Zags are like the movie Gone Girl. They reel you in, build up your excitement and then let you down at the end.

The Bulldogs don’t disagree.

Pangos admitted Tuesday that the shortcomings in March have cast a shade over Gonzaga’s reputation. Gaudy as their record and victory margins may be, he and his teammates know the only way to turn their doubters into believers is to prove themselves when it matters most.

“We’ve shown we can compete with just about anyone,” Pangos said. “But in the past few years we haven’t done anything in the NCAA tournament to spark up major conversation. Teams are supposed to be peaking at the end of the year, and we haven’t done it.”

Pangos is confident that this team will be different.

Based on the Bulldogs’ performance thus far, it’s hard to disagree.

In each of its four wins, a different player has led Gonzaga in scoring. Bell Jr. and Wiltjer have combined to make 44.7 percent of their three-point attempts, Pangos has yet to commit a turnover and Sabonis leads the team in points (14.0) and rebounds (7.5) as a freshman. Sabonis’ father, Arvydas, is a Naismith Hall of Famer who played for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers.

“We knew he was physically ready to contribute at this level,” Few said, “especially when it comes to rebounding and running the floor. But I wasn’t sure how well he’d be able to score the ball. He was playing in such a high league (in Lithuania) that he wasn’t given the opportunity to score much.

“He’s continued to work hard before and after practice. He’s got a real motor and plays every possession extremely hard. That’s a great gift to have.”

Few said he’s also been pleased with his team’s effort on the other end of the court. The Zags have never been known as soft, but there’s a certain snarl that exists with this team that hasn’t been there in years past.

Gonzaga’s players said the chemistry, cohesion and intensity they’ve exhibited thus far has been present since summer workouts.

“On paper, things can always look good,” Pangos said. “Then you get together and it doesn’t click. The personalities we have are all geared toward winning. It all meshes together perfectly.”

Indeed.

Wesley, for example, had individual success at USC but never made the NCAA tournament. Now a senior, winning is what matters. Wiltjer won an NCAA title at Kentucky in 2012, so he knows how good winning feels and wants to experience it again.

Then there are guys like Pangos and Bell Jr.

“We haven’t been to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament,” Bell Jr. said. “That’s what motivates me and Kevin the most. We’ve been here four years. We’re the veterans. We wanna see that second week.”

Bell Jr. may be setting his sights too low.

If Gonzaga keeps this up the Zags will see the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

And maybe the third and final one too.

 

Report Card

A’s


Villanova: What a week for the Wildcats. The Big East favorites annihilated No. 14 VCU by 24 points on Monday and then squeaked by No. 19 Michigan 60-55 one day later to win the Legends Classic. A key block by forward JayVaughn Pinkston in the waning seconds keyed the victory.

Kentucky’s December schedule: The Wildcats take on Texas (Dec. 5) and North Carolina (Dec. 13) at home and then play UCLA in Chicago on Dec. 20. A road showdown with Louisville awaits one week later.

Mark Turgeon: It’s way to early too predict what will happen with Maryland, but Tuesday’s victory over No. 13 Iowa State was a huge moment for the embattled Turgeon, whose program seemed to take hit after hit during the offseason.

 

B’s


Stanford: Most teams take a step back after losing a pair of NBA draft picks. But Stanford is adjusting to life without Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell just fine. Led by Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown and Reid Travis, the Cardinal thumped UNLV and hardly looked overmatched in falling to Duke the following night at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. Johnny Dawkins is doing a nice job.

Kevon Looney: The 6’9”, 220-pound UCLA forward is playing as well as any freshman in the country. Looney is averaging a double-double with 14.8 points and 12.0 rebounds to go with 2.8 assists and 1.5 blocks.

West Virginia: The Mountaineers are back to playing a tough, gritty Bob Huggins style of basketball. Juwan Staten is averaging 15.8 points and 4.2 assists for a team that improved to 5-0 with Sunday’s win over defending national champion Connecticut.

 

C’s


Arizona: Don’t get me wrong. I’m not down on the Wildcats. But I’m not ready to place them in the same category as Kentucky, Wisconsin, Duke and maybe even Gonzaga and North Carolina. I worry about their ability to score. I think this team has a high ceiling that it’s not close to reaching at this point. That should excite Arizona fans.

Dana Altman: Even though Oregon lost to Michigan and VCU in Brooklyn this week, I was impressed with Altman’s coaching. The Ducks only lost by seven points to the No. 19 Wolverines and were within six points of No. 14 VCU with less than three minutes left. Remember, other than Joseph Young, this Oregon squad basically lost everything from last season. Most people thought it’d get blown out this week, but this team plays hard. That’s a credit to Altman.

Indiana: Professional bettors in Vegas probably stay away from placing wagers on the Hoosiers—this team is impossible to predict. One week the Hoosiers are upsetting then-No. 22 SMU, and the next they’re falling at home to Eastern Washington. Freshman James Blackmon Jr. (20.2 points) has been a bright spot.

 

D’s


Florida’s depth: If Dorian Finney-Smith (hairline fracture in hand) and Eli Carter (foot sprain) are held out of action, the Gators will only have six scholarship players available for this week’s Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.

Dave Rice: The UNLV coach, who entered the season on the hot seat, didn’t do himself any favors by getting waxed 89-60 by Stanford in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic on Friday. Stanford is a good team, but the Runnin’ Rebels looked incredibly ill-prepared and sloppy, which was a poor reflection on Rice.

Marquette: Two nights after losing to Nebraska-Omaha at home, the Golden Eagles had to come from behind to stave off the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Not the kind of start first-year coach Steve Wojciechowski envisioned.

 

F’s


Johnny Jones: LSU’s coach should be embarrassed. After escaping in overtime against the Big 12’s worst team (Texas Tech) at home, Jones’ Tigers lost to Old Dominion and Clemson. Those things should never happen to a team that has Top 25 talent. LSU has been the biggest disappointment of the season thus far.

Colorado: The Buffaloes—then a Top 25 team in some polls—lost 56-33 to Wyoming. I’ll type it again: Colorado scored 33 points against Wyoming. No matter what happens the rest of the season, that will be tough to forget.

Referees in the BYU-San Diego State game: Did anyone else see BYU’s Tyler Haws get thrown to the ground as he was trying to get open for a game-winning shot in Monday’s Maui Invitational quarterfinal? It happened right in front of an official, who inexplicably did nothing. I couldn’t help but chuckle when ESPN commentator Fran Fraschilla said the defender “could get five to 10 years (in prison)” for what he did to Haws.

 

Welcome to My Radar


Providence: The Friars are 5-0 following back-to-back wins over Florida State and Notre Dame. Small forward LaDontae Henton averages 23.4 points.

Chase Fischer: BYU’s junior guard, who began his career at Wake Forest, made 10 of his 13 attempts from three-point range in Tuesday’s victory over Chaminade in the Maui Invitational. He’s now 21-of-41 from long range this season.

Arkansas: The Razorbacks, who beat SMU in Dallas on Tuesday, might be the second-best team in the SEC. Granted, that’s not saying much, but Mike Anderson’s squad will take it.

Devin Booker: Arguably the least heralded member of Kentucky’s lauded 2014 recruiting class, Booker has now made 12 of his last 17 shots from three-point range. He’s averaging 17.3 points in his last three games.

Zak Irvin: Caris Levert commanded most of the headlines during the offseason, but Irvin has been just as impressive for Michigan. The small forward is averaging a team-high 18.4 points—not bad for a sophomore.

 

Starting Five: Most Improved Players

Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina: Through three games, the 6’9”, 280-pound Meeks is averaging 16.7 points and 11.0 rebounds, up from 7.6 and 6.1 a year ago.

Sterling Gibbs, Seton Hall: The former Texas Longhorn had 40 points in Monday’s win over Illinois State and is now averaging 22 points on the season.

Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: After coming off the bench to play a key factor in last season’s Final Four run, Hayes is blossoming as a starter with averages of 15.3 points and 9.8 boards.

Charles Hankerson Jr., Wyoming: The Cowboys are off to a 4-0 start thanks, in large part, to Hankerson Jr. He’s averaging 4.8 assists (compared to 1.3 last season) and 9.0 points, up from 5.1.

Daniel Ochefu, Villanova: The forward has become a force in the paint for the undefeated Wildcats. He’s averaging 8.2 rebounds and 8.8 points.

 

A Dozen Words About My Top 12 Teams

1. Kentucky: Six wins have come by an average of 36.8 points. Good gosh.


2. Wisconsin: One week away from a home showdown with the Duke Blue Devils.


3. Duke: Upperclassmen Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson have played big roles thus far.


4. Gonzaga: Games against UCLA and Arizona should tell us more about the Zags


5. North Carolina: Hoping to see the Heels vs. Wisconsin in the Battle 4 Atlantis.


6. Arizona: Kansas State nearly upset Sean Miller’s Wildcats in the Maui Invitational on Tuesday.


7. Louisville: The Cardinals are becoming a trendy Final Four pick and understandably so.


8. Wichita State: Point guard Fred VanVleet ranks third in the country in steals (4.0).


9. Villanova: The defending Big East champs may actually be better than last season.

10. San Diego State: The Aztecs have shown toughness in close wins against Utah and BYU.


11. Kansas: Bill Self will get things figured out in Lawrence. He always does.


12. Texas: The loss of Isaiah Taylor (wrist) caused me to drop the Longhorns.

 

Rapid-Fire Thoughts

Winning me over: Louisville


Need to see more: Michigan State

Better than I thought: Baylor


Not as good as I thought: VCU


What the heck is wrong with: SMU


Seat warming up: Donnie Tyndall, Tennessee


Seat cooling off: Herb Sendek, Arizona State


Earning his paycheck: Ben Jacobson, Northern Iowa


May want to return his paycheck: Leonard Hamilton, Florida State

Pesky: Texas A&M


Putrid: USC


Are they for real?: Penn State


Get well soon: Isaiah Taylor, Texas point guard


Glad you’re feeling better: Jerry Tarkanian

 

Press Room Chatter

My favorite places for thin-crust pizza: 

  • Greenville Avenue Pizza Company, Dallas
  • Giordano’s, Chicago

  • Secret Pizza, Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas
  • Ray’s Pizza, New York City
  • D’Bronx, Kansas City

  

Best Meals I had in New York over the past week:

  • Chicken Parmigiana, Trattoria Trecolori on 47th St.

  • Lamb Gyro, food truck at 53rd and 6th
  • Cheese popcorn at the Barclays Center concession stand
  • 
Lamb Gyro from a food truck sometime around at 4 a.m. on Lafayette St. in Soho
  • Popcorn with Old Bay seasoning from the *Janitor’s Closest in Brooklyn
  • Pigs in a Blanket from the hotel concierge lounge

 

*The bar probably wasn’t called “Janitor’s Closet.” I never actually saw a sign. So I just named it for what it felt like.

 

Old-school rap albums I’ll still be bobbing my head to in my 60s:

  • No One Can Do It Better, DOC
  • Straight Outta Compton, NWA
  • Strictly Business, EPMD
  • Follow the Leader, Eric B. and Rakim
  • Bigger and Deffer, LL Cool J

 

Things that make me want to scream:

  • New York traffic
  • 
The College Football Playoff committee
  • 
Looters
  • 
People who eat wings with a fork

  • Radio hosts who laugh loudly on-air at things they’d never laugh at off-air

 

Things I’m thankful for:

  • My family (dog included…sometimes) and friends

  • My job

  • The people who combined to donate $25,000 for Kamala The Ugandan Giant
  • Wing sauce

  • The Phoebe Cates pool scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High

 

Pit Stops

As you can see from list above, I had (another) terrible food experience in New York. This is particularly frustrating to me because I know there’s great food here. I just can’t seem to find anyone to go eat it with. Don’t get me wrong. I certainly don’t mind going to Ray’s Pizza or Carnegie Deli by myself. But one of these days I’d like to try somewhere a bit more upscale. Carmine’s, perhaps. Or maybe Patsy’s.


Whatever the case, I took a significant step Tuesday afternoon by venturing a block away from my hotel to Trattoria Trecolori, which is on 47th St. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the decision, as the chicken parmigiana was among the best I’ve ever had. Crispy on the outside yet juicy and flavorful on the inside, I scarfed down the entire meal in about five minutes and then plunged into the mound of spaghetti that came on the side. It was delicious, too. I’m not kidding here. If I would’ve had more time I would’ve ordered the exact same meal again. It was that good—and I was that hungry.


I know there are other places in New York City that are just as good or better than Trattoria Trecolori. Maybe one of these days I’ll actually try a few of them.

 

All stats and projections current through Tuesday, Nov. 25. 

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR .

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