This team 'appears' to be different. Through five games, the perception of Gonzaga is that they have increased their toughness and are becoming a complete team. Looking at the #5 ranking, the undefeated record, and the Old Spice title, it appears that Gonzaga has bridged the gap and deserves all the praise.
Toughness is not just the way in which a team carries themselves. It is very recognizable in the stat line as well as the flow of the game. Stats like rebounding, steals, free throw attempts, blocked shots and turnovers are all 'toughness' categories because they are all little things that can dictate the pace and more importantly, the emotion of the team. Here is a look at the per game stats as compared to last year's per game stats. Obviously, the data field for 2008-09 is only five games as compared with 33 from last season but it still provides a good insight to the categories that can often times dictate a season.
These stats have to be taken with a grain of salt because two of the games (MSU-B and Idaho) were blowouts which saw many of the starters rest and thus the game lacked intensity throughout. The rebounding stat is the one that jumps out at me. Against Tennessee, Gonzaga has trouble with their team defense and were exposed on the glass, getting out rebounded by 24. Their rebounds per game is still up from last year which is impressive because it shows that the UT game was an isolated incident and something we shouldn't expect to see game in, game out. Another facet of the game which Gonzaga has exceled in are blocked shots. Blocks are going to be huge this season for Gonzaga. With the length that guys like Downs, Daye, and Heytvelt have, Gonzaga should be near the top in blocked shots at the end of the year. I expect the free throw attempts to increase over the year. Often times in blowout games, Gonzaga gets open looks that don't result in a lot of physical play which takes them away from the free throw line. Hopefully our team free throw percentage increases over the year too. Right now it is an abysmal 66.7% compared with 71.2% last year.
Since Adam Morrison departed, the overall intensity of the Zags has decreased but this team is very emotional and plays with a chip on their shoulder. The past two seasons saw David Pendergraft become an emotional leader for Gonzaga but a lot of the other guys were more reserved players. Players like Derek Raivio, Sean Mallon, Kuso and even Jeremy Pargo early on played with a calmness and level demeanor. This year's team has attitude and it looks like it is translating into toughness. The most emotional players this season have been Austin Daye, Micah Downs, and Josh Heytvelt. Josh's emotions have done such a 180 that he feels like a different player. His role is to exude emotion but also restrain it and show leadership that ripples throughout the team. We've seen him get in the face of some players and restrain them from showing up an official after a bad call. And, of course, he still shows the emotion we love when he makes big play. Austin Daye and Micah Downs play with an edge. They are the most competitve players on this team. At times their emotions get the better of them and they can get on a tilt but they bring a swagger to this team that is reminiscent of Adam Morrison slamming the ball against his head.
To say that this is a complete team may be a little premature but I haven't been able to see a glaring weakness yet. This can be attributed to the recruiting that Mark Few has done. He has combined the old Gonzaga ways of outscoring opponents with a new found toughness side of the team. While guys like Daye, Downs, etc can outscore anybody, Mark Few has recruited players that have provided toughness of the bench, something that Gonzaga has never really had. Ira Brown, Demetri Goodson, and Robert Sacre are the enforcers of this team. They probably won't contribute much to the total score at the end of the game, but they will be great contributors to the 'toughness stats' I mentioned above. Ira is a player that does all the little things. The versatility he has is astounding. At one point in the Maryland game, he was pressing the point guard and then went down low to block out the post and get a rebound. This is a weapon that not many teams have. Meech Goodson is a ball-hawk. His ability to come in and pressure the ball and frustrate the opponent is a welcome addition to the Gonzaga stable of guards. You can bet that Meech will get his fair share of steals and will drive teams crazy (see Bobby Maze and Tennessee). Robert Sacre is still coming back from injury but his physical size has really helped Gonzaga so far. He is a bruising player that does not mind staying in the post and cleaning the glass. His offensive game is not polished yet but Gonzaga doesn't need any more scorers thus far. The best part is that the three of these guys get it. They know their role and embrace it. You won't see Meech, Ira, and Robert taking over any games with their offensive side this year. Meech and Sacre will eventually be great scorers for Gonzaga but this season, they have different assignments and that is to bang around a little bit and do the little things to get the win. This quote sums up how Meech plays basketball and the type of attitude he brings to this team:
"He was mouthing off at me at the five-minute mark of the first half so I let him know I'm not going to back down," Goodson said. "I think it got our team fired up."I know MaxZag is desperately seeking a nickname for the trio of Meech, Ira, and Sacre but hasn't settled on one. If anyone has any ideas I'm sure he would love to hear them.
I know, I know. Gonzaga has not even scratched the surface of the season and their toughest games are still ahead but the path this team is following appears to be heading in the right direction. The physicality and edge the Zags have been playing with is going to have to come out this month. Washington State and Connecticut are two particularly physical teams and will probably provide the biggest tests for Gonzaga. Tennessee in January will also be a huge match up as now the Vols have the revenge factor. It's hard to hide enthusiasm when talking about this team because they have become so multi-dimensional. For the first time in a long time, I am confident that Gonzaga can not only outscore the opposition, but outwork the opposition.