Gonzaga’s Mark Few is the best coach in men’s college basketball. This is a bold assertion considering the likes of Mike Krzyzewski, John Calipari, Jim Boeheim and others in the sport. On top of this, Gonzaga’s early tournament exits have led many to write off Few’s consistent successes, chalking up impressive regular-season records to an easy conference schedule. Every year, it seems, some analyst is high on the Zags and predicts that they will go to the Final Four. Every year, it seems, they disappoint. This year Few and his team will silence their critics with a deep tournament run. Here’s why.
Despite losing their starting backcourt in Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos, the Bulldogs retain their best player in redshirt senior forward Kyle Wiltjer. The 6-foot-8-inch Wiltjer’s lights-out shooting is coupled with a polished, underrated post game, making him an unstoppable force on the offensive end. In addition to Wiltjer, the Zags have their own Polish Hammer, senior center Przemek Karnowski, and one of the top rebounders in the country in sophomore forward Domantas Sabonis.
It is hard to disagree with Few that his team boasts perhaps the best frontcourt in the country. Karnowski’s soft hands and natural coordination make him a legitimate threat on the offensive end of the court while his 7-foot-1-inch, 290-pound frame makes him a formidable presence defensively. He’s similar to Xavier’s Matt Stainbrook, but bigger.
Complementing Karnowski in the post is Sabonis, a 6-foot-11-inch sophomore from Lithuania. Sabonis certainly has his flaws — offensive inconsistency and virtually no shot-blocking ability — but the man is a full-grown rebounder. And you can bet that Few, with his ability to develop players’ talents, will have Sabonis working hard to fix his offensive flaws.
As if the likely starters Wiltjer, Karnowski and Sabonis aren’t a formidable enough frontcourt, the Bulldogs have another 7-foot-1-inch center to bring in off the bench: redshirt sophomore center Ryan Edwards. Although the Kalispell, Mont., native has not had much playing time the past two seasons, it does not hurt to have another big body that the Zags can play down on the block when Karnowski and Sabonis get into foul trouble, as they have had a tendency to do in the past.
Critics cite inexperience in the backcourt, but the Bulldogs combine guard experience in redshirt senior guards Kyle Dranginis and Eric McClellan with young talent in sophomore guard Silas Melson and redshirt freshman guard Josh Perkins. Perkins, who was buried behind Pangos and Bell on last year’s depth chart, will have a chance to show his ability this year. His passing ability and vision cannot be taught. With weapons like Karnowski and Wiltjer to pass to, Perkins has a chance to be among the nation’s leaders in assists.
Dranginis is long and athletic, a defensive specialist. His defensive prowess has earned him minutes in past seasons on Mark Few’s squad, but his tendency to disappear on the offensive end of the court has frustrated Gonzaga fans. The Zags will look to him for more consistent leadership and assertiveness while the younger talent develops.
So why do I say that Coach Few is the best coach in college basketball? Part of the reason is that he has proven over the years that he consistently develops talent. Players get better from year to year on his team. Expect the veterans of the squad — Wiltjer, Karnowski and Dranginis — to be better this year than they were last year and the less experienced players — especially Perkins, Sabonis and Melson — to break into the rotation in a big way.
Few’s squad will show the regular staples of the Gonzaga program: polish, poise and a gritty competitiveness. What will set them apart this year is a legitimate Preseason Player of the Year candidate in Kyle Wiltjer, plus the size and skill of Sabonis and Karnowski. Expect the Zags to dominate their in-conference schedule and make a deep tournament run.
Hugh Ramlow is a sophomore in the College. The Zone appears every other Tuesday.