After Gonzaga beat Duke for the Maui Invitational title and was absolutely crushing opponents in the West Coast Conference — including BYU — the question was asked almost every time the Zags ran out on the court.
Is this team as good, or better, than the 2016-17 Gonzaga team that won its first 29 games, inexplicably lost to the Cougars at home, and then rolled all the way to the national championship game?
Senior point guard Josh Perkins — a member of both teams — wouldn’t take the bait on Wednesday as the Zags met the media ahead of Thursday’s NCAA opener against Fairleigh Dickinson at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
“Gonzaga,” Perkins replied, when asked to pick a winner.
“The swagger, the confidence level, just the experience is all similar,” Perkins said. “This team is a lot more versatile, more athletic, I would say. We can get out in transition a bit better, square the ball better. But the teams are more similar than people would say.”
“This one is better,” Rose said after the 34-point beatdown on Feb. 23.
Local college basketball fans, many of whom watched the Zags launch their run to the Final Four two years ago, will get the chance to see if that is true for themselves when No. 1 seed Gonzaga meets No. 16 FDU at 5:27 p.m.
This is the third time Gonzaga (30-3) has earned a No. 1 seed. Each time the Zags have started their tournament at the home of the Utah Jazz, where a certain fondness exists for them because GU product John Stockton played here for 19 seasons.
The 2013 team lost to Wichita State in the round of 32 and the 2017 team defeated South Dakota and Northwestern here before eventually falling 71-65 to North Carolina in the championship game.
That 2017 team somehow lost 79-71 to unranked BYU before getting to the Final Four for the first time, but Rose was convinced a month ago — before the Zags lost 60-47 to Saint Mary’s in the WCC tournament championship game last week — that this is a better defensive team.
NCAA IN SLC
Thursday’s games at Vivint Smart Home Arena:
• Auburn (5) vs. New Mexico State (12), 11:30 a.m.
• Kansas (4) vs. Northeastern (13), 2 p.m.
• Gonzaga (1) vs. Farleigh Dickinson (16), 5:27 p.m.
• Syracuse (8) vs. Baylor (9), 7:57 p.m.
In that win back on Feb. 27, 2017, Cougars’ center Eric Mika got the best of GU center Przemek Karnowski, a mountain of a man who was impossible to back down in the paint. But Karnowski was not real mobile, and Mika — now playing in Italy — took the Zags big man outside and scored 29 points, most of them on deep jumpers. Rose said this year’s Gonzaga club has no such defensive liabilities.
“Mark [Few] has just done a really good job with this group to get them to not take possessions off,” Rose said. “It looks like they are really on a mission, and someone is going to have to play really well to break it. … Their depth is tremendous and it allows them to be so, so consistent. You are talking about a guy [Killian Tillie] who is kind of projected to be a lottery pick who is coming off the bench for them.”
Tillie, Zach Norvell Jr. and Rui Hachimura were freshmen on the 2017 team, while Perkins was a redshirt sophomore who ran the show with former Jazz second-round draft pick Nigel Williams-Goss. Future NBA lottery pick Zach Collins came off the bench.
“That would be a pretty good game,” Tillie told Jim Meehan of the Spokesman-Review, a GU beat writer who has written extensively on the topic. “That would be a pretty amazing game. That would be cool to see.”
Sophomore guard Corey Kispert, a senior at King’s High in Edmonds, Wash., when GU made its 2017 run, said the teams are quite a bit different.
“I would say the ’17 team was built more physically than us,” Kispert said. “Obviously, [Karnowski] in the middle was a big block for them defensively, and Nigel, the point guard, was an extremely good leader with lots of experience. This year, I would say, across the board we are much more athletic. All five guys on the floor can play above the rim, and we have a point guard [Perkins] who is an absolute wizard on ball screens who makes great plays, great reads, and is a vocal leader for us, too.”
Notwithstanding Rose’s claim that Karnowski could be exploited in 2017, the Zags were the No. 1 defensive team in the land that year, according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive rankings. As coaches say, matchups mean a lot.
This year’s team is No. 16 on defense, but No. 1 on offense.
As BYU, Duke, Creighton, Arizona, Washington and all those other WCC teams learned, the 2019 Zags score better than any team in the country. They are No. 1 in field goal percentage, scoring, scoring margin and assist-to-turnover ratio.
“The thing about Gonzaga that makes them so good is they play for each other,” said BYU guard Jesse Wade, a Gonzaga transfer who was on a church mission in 2016- 2017 and played sparingly for the Zags in 2017-18. “You know, they’ve got great guys and great players, but just their togetherness is amazing.”
Salt Lake City fans have seen it all before.
TALE OF TWO TEAMS
Gonzaga’s stars in 2017: Johnathan Williams, Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews, Josh Perkins, Prezemek Karnowski, Zach Collins, Killian Tillie
Gonzaga’s stars in 2019: Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell Jr., Corey Kispert, Killian Tillie, Geno Crandall
Gonzaga’s accomplishments in 2017: 29-game winning streak, No. 1 national ranking, NCAA championship game appearance
Gonzaga’s accomplishments in 2019: Beat Duke in Maui Invitational Final, No. 1 national ranking (twice), No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament, 30-3 record