What will it take for Gonzaga to reach the heights of VCU and Butler? (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
For the second consecutive year, Butler is set to play in the Final Four after winning the Horizon League conference tournament. Despite finishing fourth in the CAA, VCU has won five consecutive games to earn a spot in the Final Four after years of being a difficult matchup in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, for the second straight year, Gonzaga saw its season come to an end with a blowout loss in the second/third round of the NCAA Tournament. With Mid-Majors breaking through to compete for the ultimate prize in college basketball, it's interesting to ponder why Gonzaga not only has yet to make this break through, but also why it has been 12 years since the Zags even earned a spot in the Elite 8.
I want to make it clear that this blog isn't in anyway intended to be a condemnation of where the program stands or anything like that. Instead, I want this to be a genuine look at what Gonzaga needs to do to break through what appears to be a difficult wall. A lot of what VCU and Butler have done surrounds favorable matchups in the NCAA Tournament. For example, after knocking off Pitt in the third round, Butler received a matchup with Wisconsin in the Sweet 16. This is an ideal game for Butler as Wisconsin plays a similar style of basketball but doesn't execute it at as high of a level as Butler.
For VCU, an upset of Notre Dame in the third round meant a matchup in the Sweet 16 with Florida St. instead of the Fighting Irish. Instead of facing a senior-laden Notre Dame team that shoots the ball exceptionally well, the Rams faced a Florida St. team that lacked a true point guard and shot poorly from the perimeter. It's these kind of breaks (Kentucky winning in the final seconds against Princeton....UConn surviving two open shots in the final seconds against Arizona) that are needed to make a Final Four. However, when looking at Butler and VCU, there are certainly some traits that you'd like to see Gonzaga share down the road.The immediate trait that jumps out at me, and it's something that Gonzaga will have next year, is the amount of upperclassmen that play key roles for both Butler and VCU. For the past two years, Gonzaga has seen one contributing senior graduate each season (Note: While Will Foster did graduate two years ago, he didn't receive many minutes). When you only have one senior playing frequent minutes, it's hard to get the leadership needed to understand what it takes to win and compete for 40 minutes each night. While we all want to debate the talent, or lack there of at certain positions, the most glaring thing for me the past two years has been the lack of leadership. Heading into 2011-12, guys like Rob Sacre, Demetri Goodson and Marquise Carter will provide a level of senior leadership that has been lacking in recent years. With Butler in particular, it's clear that the players know how to compete and execute in nearly any situation that can be presented in a game. I don't think this is a luxury Gonzaga teams have been afforded since the graduation of Pargo, Heytvelt and Downs.
While it's not necessarily attractive to watch, if there is one thing I wish that Gonzaga could take from Butler, it's a focus and passion for the defensive end. In the first 20 minutes of the game against BYU, the Zags gave up more open and uncontested looks then Butler has given up in the entire NCAA Tournament. Although you can debate the merits of a man-to-man defense vs. a zone defense, the reality is that performance on the defensive end ultimately comes down to how much effort a team is willing to put in. If five guys buy into excellence on the defensive end, which means contesting open looks and playing help defense for 35 seconds every possession, that team will compete in every game. Unfortunately, there seems to be a mindset that instead of focusing on getting stops, Gonzaga looks to win games on the offensive end instead of trying to stop an opponent. I truly believe that with the athletes and talent that the coaching staff will have at its disposal next season, that if defense can really become a priority and focus throughout the season, it will be the kind of team that can change the culture I just mentioned.
So with these considerations now discussed, the most important question is: What can Gonzaga do to develop its program and make a Final Four? Is it inherently possible to change a mindset of a program? If the answer to the previous question is yes, then who does the change start with? Does the type of recruit that Gonzaga typically pursues need to be changed? Or is the emphasis in practice not focused enough on defense? Personally, I tend to believe that for a mindset of a program to be changed, it often revolves around a particular recruiting class. This class is the type that comes in and changes the attitude surrounding a certain program. Could this 2011 recruiting class be the one that changes how Gonzaga plays and is viewed at the national level. Will a play-making guard like Gary Bell help elevate this program by being the guy who wants the ball with the game on the line just like Shelvin Mack has at Butler? Or can a guy like Ryan Spangler develop into a Matt Howard type player and use his effort over all 40 minutes of the game to grab a decisive rebound or draw the game-winning charge? Given the success of Butler and VCU this season, Gonzaga has seen the blueprint for making a Final Four. The question remains whether the foundation that this program was built on is strong enough to continue the push for the elusive spot in a Final Four.