Will one of the best Cinderella programs we’ve ever seen in Gonzaga finally make that elusive Final Four appearance?
Cinderella and college basketball are inextricably linked. It’s an obvious partnership in a sport that features a single-elimination tournament highlighted by a plethora of David versus Goliath moments. It’s those moments — whether they’re a single shot or an unexpected run deep into the Madness — that make the NCAA Tournament one of the most captivating sporting events in the world. The Davids that embrace those moments? Those are March’s Cinderellas.
No program in college basketball is tied more to the Cinderella moniker than the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
The connection originated at the 1999 NCAA Tournament. It was the second time in school history that the Bulldogs had played in the event. They entered as a 10-seed, the champions of the West Coast Conference and an unlikely story. Three wins later — upsets over Minnesota, Stanford and Florida — Gonzaga, led by head coach Dan Monson, found itself rightfully dubbed a Cinderella story and due for an Elite Eight matchup with eventual national champion Connecticut. Although the Bulldogs would fall to the Huskies, unlike most Cinderellas, they have maintained their relevance on the college basketball landscape.
Current head coach Mark Few took over the program the next season after Monson left for Minnesota. Few has helped the Zags back to every NCAA Tournament since, but his teams have yet to break through to the Final Four. This, like many prior to it, may be the season that that all changes.
Eight players are currently averaging double figure minutes for the Bulldogs. Three of those players are returners from last year’s 11th-seeded Sweet Sixteen team, two of them are freshmen and three are transfers. It’s an eclectic mix, but one that has fit well together so far.
The backcourt is highlighted by Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss. The 6-foot-3 point guard was a McDonald’s All-American as a high school senior, made the Pac-12 All-Freshmen Team as a freshman and earned Second-Team All-Pac-12 honors as a sophomore before deciding to leave the school in pursuit of a more stable situation. He found one at Gonzaga where he’s led the team in scoring this season, averaging 13.4 points per game while knocking down better than 40 percent of his 3-point looks. Williams-Goss also leads the team in assists (4.7 per game) as he’s shown an excellent ability to operate pick-and-pop situations with the team’s versatile big men.
He’s joined by a pair of guards who can fill it up from behind the arc. Sophomore Josh Perkins is a former four-star recruit who suffered a broken jaw that forced him to redshirt his first season on campus back in 2014-15. The 6-foot-3 guard is a career 41.7 percent shooter from 3-point range and has looked much more comfortable this season with Williams-Goss taking over primary ball handling duties. Graduate transfer Jordan Mathews is another 3-point marksman. Mathews played three seasons at California before heading up the coast. He’s made 41.4 percent of his 536 career 3-point attempts and provides the Bulldogs with another dangerous off-ball threat.
The frontcourt is anchored by 7-foot-1, 300-pound Przemek Karnowski. The senior missed much of last season with a back injury, but has looked healthy en route to averaging 23.6 points and 11.8 rebounds per 40 minutes. Karnowski’s passing ability is a unique offensive weapon for Gonzaga. Given his size, most teams are forced to send a second defender when he catches the ball in the post and Karnowski has become adept at whipping the ball to a teammate either slashing through the lane or on the perimeter. The Bulldogs’ big man is the only center in the country with an assist rate above 19 percent who averages more than nine shots per game. Defensively, Karnowski is an imposing presence despite the fact that he’s not a great rim protector. His size makes it unlikely that the team will have to double any opposing bigs and Karnowski is good at challenging shot attempts even if he doesn’t get a hand on them.
Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams pairs with Karnowski in the frontcourt. The 6-foot-9 forward has been an excellent piece and important role player this season. Williams is a capable, although infrequent 3-point shooter and his threat of pulling up outside the arc helps draw his defender away from the paint where Karnowski does his best work. The junior big man also gives the Zags a secondary shot blocker, something that has allowed them to hold teams to shooting 41.3 percent from 2-point range.
Two freshmen round out the frontcourt rotation. 7-footer Zach Collins and 6-foot-10 Killian Tillie are both four-star recruits and 3-point threats who can give the Gonzaga offense a five-out look when they’re on the floor. That makes for an extremely potent attack given Williams-Goss’ ability to attack the paint off the bounce. Versatile bigs are somewhat common in college basketball, but not ones who are 6-foot-10 or taller. Few has the luxury of using two of them off the bench.
This Gonzaga roster is arguably the best one that Few has ever coached. There are, of course, others that have a claim to the crown. Adam Morrison’s 2006 team was highlighted by earning a three-seed and a brutal Sweet Sixteen exit. The 2013 team managed to get a one-seed on the back of a 31-2 record before being knocked off by future Cinderella, Wichita State. This season’s roster, though, features an excellent balance between talented guard play and bruising, but beautiful frontcourt skills that are conducive to making a run to the Final Four. That’s the ultimate goal for Cinderella, after all; a trip to the ball and a chance to meet Prince Charming.
It’s been nearly 20 years since the Gonzaga Bulldogs first put on the slipper, but they’ve still never found their Prince Charming. Maybe this will finally be the season with a happy ending.