In the past decade, I can count on one hand all the games I can remember where GU was behind for 35 or more minutes. The team’s been so good, it’s been able to compete with everyone. When the Zags have lost games, the opponent usually overcomes their deficit in the 2nd half leading to endless speculation and fan discussion on why the team collapses.
Many of these fan discussions place the blame squarely on the shoulders of Mark Few. He’s inflexible and fails to make adjustments, he mismanages player rotations or the opposing coach is just simply better at his profession and Few is outcoached. Another well-trodden argument is GU let the air out of the ball too early and stopped doing what got them the lead in the first place. All valid points with a possible element of truth, but I think a key factor has always been overlooked, a player or players willing and capable to take over late in a game and refuse to lose.
With the notable exceptions of the Dan Dickau and Adam Morrison teams, Gonzaga’s used balanced ball control/work-for-the-best-shot offenses. Sometimes that best shot was dumping it to Karno or Olynyk in the post, Stepp or Pangos behind the arc but those were the best options within the flow of the offense. One on one play was discouraged or even punished with a quick trip to the bench. Like it or not, you can’t argue with the fact that GU’s deliberate offensive approach has been successful over 80% of the time.
The problem’s been those times it’s not working. Those times when the opponent was making a 2nd half run, the GU offense was sputtering and continuing to work the ball resulted in poor shots late in the clock. What was needed was a player to take over the game. We’ve seen a string of opponents do it; Draymond Green, Brandon Paul, Gabe York, Kyle Collinsworth, the Moraga Wolf-boy. Players willing to put the team on their shoulders and take personal responsibility for the win or the loss. To his credit, Pangos did it a few times but was limited by his stature and athleticism. Wiltjer had the same problem, give him a step and he was deadly but he wasn’t going around anyone when closely guarded. These guys were willing; sometimes they just weren’t able.
All the above leads me to this year’s team and specifically Nigel Williams-Goss. I thought his per game averages would decrease because he’d be playing on a more talented, better balanced team. My biggest hope was he’d be the man willing to drive the key late in a close game and put up a scoring floater. That’s just what he did late in the Arizona game, twice. NWG possesses both the requisite talent and fortitude to make those key, clutch plays. Better still, he’s not alone on this year’s team. We saw Melson make key plays against Florida, Collins hit a key three against Iowa State and I’m confident Josh Perkins will add his name to the list at a point or two in the upcoming season.
I’m not saying GU won’t blow a 2nd half lead this season leading to fan frustration and finger-pointing, I’m saying the talent and balance on this team makes it much less likely than it’s been in previous seasons, especially last year. Luckily, Mark Few also seems to be a much better coach when he has a bunch of good players.