Scouting the Contenders: Gonzaga Bulldogs
- 25-0 record, 13-0 conference (West Coast Conference)
- Notable Wins: 73-71 over Iowa State, 69-62 over Arizona, 79-56 over St. Mary's
- Notable Losses: None
- Only remaining undefeated in Division I basketball
Scouting Report: It is becoming a common theme up in Spokane, Washington. The Bulldogs may lose a good crop of veterans or future NBA contributors (Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer recently) but always have former role players or transfers step up. The emergence of a number of newcomers has been the X-factor behind their flawless start. Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss is leading the team in scoring (15.8 PPG), assists and steals while shooting an efficient 51 percent from the field. Backcourt mates Jonathan Williams (Missouri) and Jordan Matthews (Cal) are also brand new to the Gonzaga rotation, but have brought immediate scoring punch to the lineup. Freshman Zach Collins has also been a revelation in his first season of college basketball. The seven-footer from Las Vegas is averaging 10.8 PPG and nearly six boards per game, and has really taken Wiltjer's role of a floor-stretching big. Then, there is a holdovers from last year's team, namely gigantic Przemek Karnowski and rock-solid sophomore Josh Perkins, who has played big minutes helping run the offense. Overall, 'Zaga has perhaps one of their most talented lineups in years, and one with incredible versatility. They have a good collections of slashers and attackers, mixed in with good shooters and quality size down low. Yet, even with that talent and a 25-0 start, there are a number of doubters of this No. 1 team, and probably for good reason. For years, Gonzaga has been the model of consistency in the sport, making every NCAA Tournament since Mark Few took over in 1999-2000. However, they haven't always excelled when they have gotten there. They have made one Elite Eight showing (as a two seed in 2014-2015, where they also spent time as No. 1) but have been unable to really take the next step. It isn't to say this team is perennial "chokers" that can't advance deep into the field, but it is tough to imagine them taking the next step this year with the vast amount of talent throughout the land. Others may point to their weak schedule, which always seems to be a detractor against the 'Zags. Iowa State and Arizona were two quality wins in the non-conference, but some could even argue those weren't great. Iowa State is no lock for the NCAA Tournament and is still on the bubble despite beating Kansas, and Arizona was extremely beat-up when Gonzaga beat them by seven. It doesn't help that the West Coast Conference is no power-conference. Saint Mary's appears to be a quality basketball team and Gonzaga shredded them by 23, which certainly does add an impressive victory. Yet, beyond the Gaels and perhaps BYU, there isn't a clear-cut postseason team in the conference. With those negatives in mind, Gonzaga knows they have to end their year on fire and in an impressive manner to really show the country what they can do before March arrives.
The Verdict: Few teams in college basketball can go to likely 18 straight NCAA Tournaments and win either the conference's regular or postseason title 16 of 17 years and still being looked at as a team with something to prove. But, Gonzaga is still trying to shred the label as the underdog and prove they belong in the conversation with the rest of the sport's bluebloods. To do that, they have to make a Final Four, and this could be the team to do just that. They have a very dangerous offense with a variety of different weapons and play sound, disciplined defense. They also appear to have the veteran leadership and confidence to survive the rigors of March and April. Yet, they have had teams that have seemingly had that in the past, including the last two years, and have come agonizingly close to a Final Four berth. With how tough this year's tournament will be (including likely one or two of the Pac-12 powers appearing in their bracket), my prediction would be an Elite Eight as the ceiling for this year's group. However, who knows, this could be the year Gonzaga finally puts it altogether when it matters the most and silences the doubters, much like Villanova just did last spring.