Preseason tournaments can be a fun viewing experience for fans, as teams get matched up against opponents they don’t normally get to play. Sometimes it serves as a preview of possible NCAA Tournament matchups down the road in March. For the Gonzaga Bulldogs, the Old Spice Classic was their opportunity to to announce to the country that they were a legitimate contender this year, and they seized it.
The Old Spice Classic is by no means a direct pipeline to the Final Four, but Gonzaga showed that they have the depth, versatility and playmaking ability to make a deep run this season. Their three wins in Orlando showed off the myriad ways that the Zags can win games.
In the opener against the Clemson Tigers, the Bulldogs pulled through in a “meat grinder” of a game. Clemson forced Gonzaga to run their half-court offense as they were able to slow down the transition game on the defensive side of the ball. They also tested the Zags defensively, forcing them to defend deep into the shot clock, and Mark Few‘s team passed with flying colors, winning 57-49.
They followed that win up with a second-round matchup with the Oklahoma Sooners where the Zags dictated the pace and dominated from the tip. They used their outstanding transition game to get out ahead of the Sooners defense and never let Oklahoma get back into the game. They put their finishing ability on display as they pulled away, winning 72-47.
That put them into the championship game on Sunday against the Davidson Wildcats, who tested the resolve of Gonzaga by pouring it on early. Davidson came out hot and jumped out to an early nine-point lead, but the Zags weathered the storm and turned the game around. Gonzaga effectively played inside-out, getting the ball into the post and finding open shooters on the perimeter to dispatch the Wildcats 81-67.
Mark Few recognized how important this week was and how well his team played in it, saying: “It was a really good week for us. We got tested in a variety of ways. Both with how the games flowed, but also with the different schemes and matchups that we faced.”
They were tested, and they passed with flying colors. The stars played like stars for the Zags, with Elias Harris leading the team in scoring all three games, scoring 13, 18 and 24 respectively. Harris was also dominant on the glass, grabbing 23 rebounds over the three games, including 10 in the championship game.
But the most impressive aspect of this Gonzaga team wasn’t how their headliners played. It was the way the defense shut opponents down and the way their depth shined. The Zags’ defense was stifling all weekend, holding opponents to 31, 32, and 36 percent shooting from the floor in three games. They made teams work for good looks and forced them to settle for difficult shots while minimizing their second chance opportunities.
The best sign for the Zags, however, is the number of players who made positive contributions. Kelly Olynyck made his debut in the tournament opener and made an immediate impact. Fellow 7-footer Przemek Karnowski also stepped up when needed and provided a presence in the post. Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell and David Stockton all made plays in the backcourt, making this team one of the most complete Few has had in his tenure in Spokane.
With the depth, the star power and the size of this Gonzaga team, they are proving they have the pieces to match up against anyone in the country. The way those pieces are improving in every game further justifies the buzz about this team going deep into the tourney this March.
Gonzaga will be tested with upcoming games against the Baylor Bears, Kansas State Wildcats, and Oklahoma State Cowboys. How they come out of those games will give us a better picture of just how good this team is and how formidable they will be in March. For now, though, it is difficult to find a more complete team that is playing as well as the Gonzaga Bulldogs.