Chemistry, balance setting Gonzaga on path to successful season
Off to its best start in school history, Gonzaga will face No. 13 Illinois Saturday
Gonzaga has found balance on both ends of the floor and even off the court
The Bulldogs' say the team could go about 12-deep if the occasion called for it
The game is called How To Get Into The Club. It sounds like something played at a middle-school sleepover. It is, in fact, one of the current favorites on the Gonzaga team charter. It works like this: Someone thinks of a sequence of words, identifiable by a particular pattern. Everyone else tries to guess words to fit the pattern to get into the club.
It may be that the first word must begin with an A. So someone asks: Can I get into the club with a pear? And they are told a pear will not get them in the club. So someone else may ask: Can I get into the club with an apple? And, yes, that someone is one step closer to having the velvet rope lifted, cerebrally speaking.
On and on this goes with the Bulldogs, an entrance exam with only one satisfactory outcome. "It's just whenever you can figure it out," sophomore guard Kevin Pangos said. "You continue going until everyone's in."
Everybody is in, all right, for a witheringly deep, impeccably balanced Gonzaga team off to the best start in school history as a showdown with 13th-ranked Illinois approaches Saturday. None of the various incarnations of this most major of mid-major programs won nine in a row to start a season. None of those teams, at least none recently, have boasted the top-to-bottom strength on both ends of the floor that this one does.
After a rugged win at Washington State on Wednesday, Gonzaga features four players scoring in double-digits with another two averaging nine points a game. (It was five double-figure scorers before freshman Przemek Karnowski posted zero points in three minutes against the Cougars.) No one averages more than 30 minutes a night, but 10 players average at least 11.
But a look at statistician Ken Pomeroy's rankings -- before that two-point win Wednesday --revealed the more startling and telling symmetry: In adjusted offensive efficiency, Mark Few's team ranked No. 8 nationally. In adjusted defensive efficiency, Few's team ranked No. 8 nationally.
Gonzaga dropped to No. 12 in the latter category after the visit to Pullman, but everyone gets the picture, on balance. "I just don't know if they have a weakness," Illinois coach John Groce said. "They have depth. They have skill. They play hard. They play together. They're only the second-best team in the country when you compile all the statistics from the offensive and defensive end. They're great on the glass. They're great in the post. They use the three-point shot effectively. They play hard on the defensive end. They do a good job of mixing it up. They execute well. I can see why people have said this is one of his better or best teams (Few) has ever had."
Few would argue, but he might not be able to. He has coached talent, and he has coached cohesive teams, but perhaps not teams with this much remarkable stability. "I've been blessed up here with unbelievable chemistry, I really have," Few said. "Great guys, high-character guys. But this group kind of takes the cake. They're easy to coach, they're easy to travel with, they're easy to motivate. They're very tight-knit. Their egos aren't getting in the way. Which is pretty cool in this day and age."
It begins with the Bulldogs doing everything together, all the time. They regularly screen movies or dine at restaurants en masse. When a Zag zags, no one zigs. For more casual hangs, the convention center is on Mission St. in Spokane, where guard David Stockton, forward Kelly Olynyk, center Sam Dower and others reside. Most teammates have apartments, so it is the only spot where all 12 players can assemble comfortably for video games or the occasional team meal.
Not shockingly, for those repasts, everyone does their part, happy to assist. At one end of the operation is Olynyk, a 7-footer from Kamloops, British Columbia, who is skilled enough to make his own sushi. At the other end are mainstays-turned-role players like Pangos, whose standard contribution is chips and dip. Even star forward Elias Harris is reduced, doing one kind of scoring with a ball on a court and another kind with a knife in a kitchen.
"There need to be some followers when it comes down to cooking," Harris said. "(Olynyk) tells me what I need to do, and I do it. If that's cutting tomatoes or whatever, I'll do it."
Consider it just another burnished edge for the 6-8 forward from Speyer, Germany. His scoring and shooting percentage dipped from his freshman year to his sophomore campaign, but relinquishing a commitment to the German national team left him more time to grow his game. "There was never, at any point really, a chance for Elias to work on Elias," Few said. "These last two years, he's been able to stay over here and work on Elias. His game, to me, looks more mature."
The result is 16.8 points and 8.1 rebounds with 56.3 percent shooting -- all career-best rates, so far -- even as his 27.3 minutes per game are less than he played last year or even as a freshman. The maturity was on display Wednesday, when instead of settling for jumpers in a tight game as he might have in the past, Harris backed down his defender off the bounce multiple times to get a score, as Few put it, "on his terms."
Groce lauded Harris' well-rounded arsenal while lofting this bouquet: "The thing I admire most about him is he plays his best when his best is needed."
"It's a confidence deal," Harris said. "I play with more confidence than I did maybe my freshman and sophomore year. And I play with a high amount of energy, and I think that leads to the consistency I have right now."
In sum, the Bulldogs' big men do take the bulk of the shots when they're on the floor. (Harris and Olynyk are the central cogs with the highest percentage of possessions used.) The backcourt of Pangos and Gary Bell, Jr. eat up good minutes without gobbling up the shot attempts. Gonzaga's frontcourt can stretch the floor, run the floor and handle the ball while its backcourt are sharers, and everyone can guard, which explains the aforementioned balance.
Then there is the rotation that, the players insist, could go 12-deep if necessary. Front-line players can exert themselves at a high rate without fear of a drop-off -- perhaps another key to the defensive success -- and it permits Few to go with whatever combination works on a given night.
"It's been like, hey, you give us everything you've got and then, bang, you pass the baton to the next guy, he goes as hard as he can," Few said. "It's almost like tag-team wrestling."
Said Pangos: "We just know if we give it all we got, and if we need a rest, someone is right there to do the same. As a unit, we'll break down the other team eventually."
Late Wednesday night, word trickled in to Few and his players that they were off to the best start in program history. Most had no clue. When a staff member broke the news to Harris, his response was "What? No way."
It's a fine accomplishment. Nine games, of course, will not make a season. But chemistry and balance like the Bulldogs boast usually does.
"Again, it's Sports Cliché 101 here: They don't care," Few said. "They don't care if Pangos leads them in scoring, or Bell, or Harris, or Olynyk, there's just none of that. I don't think there's anyone keeping score."
Brian Hamilton is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @ChiTribHamilton.