The success and consistency of the Gonzaga basketball program over the past 10 years has been nothing short of remarkable. Although it may seem like myself and the other writers on the site take all the 20+ win seasons for granted, I can assure you that there is a high level of respect and appreciation for the culture that the coaching staff has been able to create in Spokane.
With that said, this past season provided some of the first chinks in the Gonzaga armor, as there seemed to be a sense of complacency and staleness throughout the program. While the talent of the squad ultimately prevailed in March, it was hard not to notice that a lot of the recruiting reaches over the past two years had failed to pan out. The reliance on signing players in the Spring signing period wasn't beneficial, and there appeared to be a lack of player development.
In order to overcome complacency in the program, I think it's imperative that this upcoming season sees Gonzaga go back to it's roots that allowed the program to emerge as something special. It's time to see a Gonzaga team push the tempo on both ends of the court and use the length and athleticism that is abundant on the team to make something special happen and adjust the culture of the program for the coming years.
The key for me is the implementation of a man-to-man fullcourt defense. Throughout this great run that Gonzaga has had, I can't remember a team that has had the kind of length and athleticism at all positions, which allows this type of defense to be played. I would love to see a starting lineup of Gary Bell, Marquise Carter, Elias Harris, Sam Dower and Rob Sacre at the start of the season. This lineup would have tremendous length at each position and is a team that would be incredibly difficult to stop when on the fastbreak. I don't necessarily think it would be the most fluid team in the halfcourt, but I like to think back to the North Carolina team that won it all in 2009, since that team pushed the tempo every possession (note: just to make it clear, in no way do I think that this Gonzaga team will be as good as that UNC team). The other aspect of this lineup that is intriguing is the ability to matchup at each position on the defensive end. As Marquise Carter demonstrated last season, he has the ability to guard on the perimeter, and I expect GBJ to be able to do the same. At the SF, PF and C positions, GU would have the advantage in terms of length, and would be able to matchup athletically with most of the top teams in the country.
With the idea of playing at such a high tempo on both ends of the court, a team needs to have depth to give the starting five legitimate rest over the course of 40 minutes. Thankfully, it looks like this roster is capable of doing so. At the PG/SG position, I see a legitimate competition between Mathis Keita, David Stockton and Kevin Pangos for the primary role off the bench. I would like to see GBJ, Marquise Carter and one of the guys mentioned in a rotation over the course of the game. Since I am a huge believer in improving the defense and implementing fullcourt pressure, I would lean towards Keita, especially if he has been able to improve his ball-handling abilities. Along with Keita, players like Guy Landry, The Hoff, Kelly Olynyk and Ryan Spangler can provide significant depth and allow this team to play at the high tempo that is necessary for the program to continue to improve and hopefully get to the next level.
While the high-tempo offense will not be a big adjustment for this program, it's the willingness to pressure the ball on the defensive end that is so important. It's difficult to count the number of times I have been talking to Zach during a game and mentioning how much I would love to see some 3/4 court pressure. Unfortunately, since the departure of Austin Daye, there seems to have been a reluctance to really force the issue on the defensive end. Sitting back in a zone has been the reason that we have seen blowout losses in the NCAA Tournament to Syracuse and BYU in the past two years. It's not that teams just seem to shoot the ball well against Gonzaga. Instead, the issue at hand is that it's not easy to be a good defensive team when you sag back in a 2-3 zone and allow teams to beat you from the perimeter. This group next year has the talent to be a pretty special team, but in order to do so there must be a commitment to using a deeper rotations and stepping up the tempo and pressure on both ends of the court.