The Gonzaga Bulldogs are theoretically one of those dreaded double-digit seeds that is actually much better than the seed suggests.
The key word here is "theoretically," because as we have seven times this season, the Zags have been much less than perfect. However, we have also seen this team start to play up to its potential, or at least what we thought they might be able to do.
Luckily, for us, all of this strong play has happened towards the end of the season, resulting in a road win over BYU to claim a share of the WCC crown, and wins over both BYU and Saint Mary's in the WCC Tournament for the automatic bid.
So here we stand. The Zags have a game against Seton Hall and then a potential matchup against Utah in the second round. So, the question, is how can this team make a run in the 2016 NCAA Tournament?
Don't be intimidated
Hopefully, this is the first thing the coaching staff is consistently telling this team. Ken Pomeroy ranks the Zags No. 28. He isn't much higher on Seton Hall at No. 26 and Utah at No. 29. This isn't a No. 8 vs. a No. 1 seed matchup here. Seton Hall is a game the Zags can win. Utah/Fresno State is a game the Zags can win. Confidence was an issue for this team, especially after Przemek Karnowski went down with an injury, but they have been playing fearless for the past couple of weeks. If the Zags show up with the energy they showed against BYU and Saint Mary's, they can keep up with most anyone in the nation. Once that is going, the shots just need to fall.
Feed the ball to Domantas Sabonis.
Here are some encouraging stats on our lovely big man. Domas takes 55.8 percent of his field goals at the rim, highest on the team. He also hits 72.5 percent of his field goals at the rim, also highest on the team. Sabonis is one of the most skilled players on the team and also happens to be the most efficient with the ball as well.
After Karnowski went down with his injury, the Zags did a great job of feeding the ball down low to the big man. From UCLA to Pepperdine, four-straight games, he had double-digit free throw attempts. Sabonis is also so good on the free-throw line that no matter how many people are on him, the Zags are generally better off getting that inside-out game going. And that leads us into the next point...
Knock down the open threes.
I know this sounds like a given of a three, but if Gonzaga wants to make a run, this is exactly what the guards have to do. Gonzaga has two players in Wiltjer and Sabonis who demand double-teams nearly every time they touch the ball. Josh Perkins picked it up a notch in conference play, hitting 46.3 percent of his threes. Kyle Dranginis did as well, shooting 42.4 from beyond the arc in conference play. Eric McClellan carried the torch in the WCC Tournament, knocking down 7-of-13 in three games. If the Gonzaga guards are able to hit the shots they are supposed to hit, it puts the opposing defenses on edge and allows Wiltjer and Sabonis to truly go to work.
This is especially important against Seton Hall. The Pirate guards are good at defending the three, and they will force the Zags to hit those shots. Seton Hall doesn't have a lot of options containing the Gonzaga frontcourt, but that job becomes much easier for them if wide-open shots go awry.
Most of all, play hungry, or just play like they have for the past two weeks.
Watching the HBO series on Gonzaga has been rather interesting especially because you could sense there was a definite difference in energy following the Saint Mary's game and following the BYU game to close out the season. Granted, that could also be because HBO decided to paint he picture that way, but for now, we will assume that this team, realistically, need a huge ass fire lit under their asses. It took a long time to stoke that flame, but it looks like it is finally lit.
Watching Gonzaga in the WCC Tournament vs. the rest of the season was night and day for the teams. The WCC Tournament version of the Zags took every haymaker that BYU and Saint Mary's launched and they countered it. The Zags led for nearly 36 minutes against BYU and pretty much the same against Saint Mary's. Earlier in the season, we saw Gonzaga waver and falter when those gut punches came. The past couple of weeks we have seen the team punch back even stronger.
There are basically only good teams in the NCAA Tournament, so no wins will come easy for Gonzaga. But if this team continues to play like they have as of late, they have a good chance of making some noise.