NEW YORK – Simply put, Gonzaga is as balanced a team as you’ll find in college basketball this season. They’re also deep, and their players know how to play off each other. And while they had to hang on to beat St. John’s 73-66 to take home the NIT Season Tip-Off on Friday, they had the kind of response needed of a veteran team that’s going to make a deep postseason run, as many think they will.
Gonzaga’s guards understandably get a lot of attention, because they comprise one of the best backcourts in the country. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. already formed a good one, but adding freshman Josh Perkins and USC transfer Byron Wesley makes them that much better. Pangos, the heart and soul of this team, is off to an unreal start, as he’s still knocking down shots the way he normally does, but has an incredible 38 assists and just four turnovers on the young season.
In his typical fashion, though, he was quick to point out how balanced the effort was when asked about being the tournament MVP.
“It was an honor, but the entire team, you could kind of pick anyone,” said the senior guard.
Pangos has reached this point with that kind of humble attitude, as well as a very meticulous approach. It’s not just that he’s in the gym often – he covers all the bases, from nutrition to finding one thing at a time to work on and improve.
“There isn’t any stone that goes unturned with Kevin,” said Gonzaga head coach Mark Few.
All three of the senior guards played a clear role in Friday’s win. Bell helped Gonzaga break the game open in the second half, scoring six unanswered points to give them their first double-digit lead of the game. He finished with 13 points and seven rebounds. Wesley averaged almost 18 points per game at USC last year, but is content averaging over 12 right now and finding his offense in the flow.
They will have to manage without the highly-touted Perkins for a while, as he broke his jaw on Wednesday night. Friday is an indication that they should be able to do that and be even better with his return.
For all the attention they get, however, the Bulldog front line is pretty formidable, too. Przemek Karnowski and Kyle Wiltjer are nice starting points, with the former a solid post scorer and rebounder while Wiltjer just knows the game and can do a lot of things. Plus, Wiltjer, who is actually their leading scorer, has been part of a national championship team. Domantas Sabonis, the son of Lithuanian legend Arvydas, actually comes off the bench, even though he could start for a lot of teams.
On Friday, the frontcourt that played off the guards beautifully. On several times the guards were able to lob it in for a big man to score, and they held their own on the glass for much of the game. Sabonis actually led them in scoring with 14 points on 6-6 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds. Indicative of how they played off everyone was a time Sabonis got past the defense for a long lead pass from Pangos and a layup. Sabonis simply knows how to play and fits perfectly with this team.
They’re so deep up front that Angel Nunez, a high-major recruit out of high school who started his career at Louisville, comes off the bench. For good measure, it was a lesser-known reserve, wing Kyle Dranginis, who had a big defensive play in the final minute.
And when they needed big baskets, Wesley came up with several of them to stop the bleeding as St. John’s rallied late, even with big man Chris Obekpa having fouled out a few minutes earlier. The last of them was a left-handed layup through traffic that put them up 69-63 with over a minute to play. He ended up as one of five Bulldogs to score in double figures – ironically, they had one player score each number between 10 and 14 points, led by Sabonis.
There have been several times prognosticators have said that one Gonzaga team or another will be the one to reach the Final Four. During this incredible run they have been on, that’s one thing that has eluded them – indeed, they haven’t even made it to the Elite Eight since 1999, either. Plenty think this may be the team to do it, and they certainly have the talent, depth, senior guards and overall pieces to make a deep run. Friday night was one indication of that along the way.