The Zags are the WCC champs. But why was this season so surprising?

click to enlarge Gonzaga team hoists their WCC Championship trophy after the game. - ERICK DOXEY PHOTO
Erick Doxey photo
Gonzaga team hoists their WCC Championship trophy after the game.
It’s March. The regular season is now in the rearview mirror. As usual, it was an incredibly successful season for the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

It’s strange to say that winning the West Coast Conference regular season title, which Gonzaga clinched on Thursday, is surprising. They’ve done this in 19 of the past 20 seasons, including the last eight in a row. The Zags sit at 29 wins, almost certain to see that number climb into the 30s over the upcoming weeks. An impressive number, considering the Zags first reached the 30-win plateau in the 2013 season. But not surprising, considering in the seven seasons since they’ve reached it four times. In the seasons they fell short, they only fell short by one or two games.

Gonzaga’s accomplishments aren’t surprising, but the fact that this year’s team achieved them so easily certainly has been.

“From where I was at watching these guys in July and from where I was watching these guys in October,” head coach Mark Few said after Saturday’s win over Saint Mary’s, "I've never had a team surprise me as much as this one did. We don't have lottery picks. But they worked and listened and were coachable. Our whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts."

Last season the Zags had a lottery pick in Rui Hachimura. They had another first-round draft pick in Brandon Clarke. They also had Zach Norvell, who went undrafted but wound up in the NBA nonetheless, spending time with the Lakers and the Warriors this season. Josh Perkins, Jeremy Jones and Geno Crandall, all seniors, ran out of college eligibility and are now playing professional basketball.

The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie lists only one Gonzaga player in his most recent NBA mock draft. It’s Corey Kispert, the only returning starter from last season, and Vecenie projects him to be taken with the sixth to last pick in the draft.

It’s entirely possible that no players from this year's team play in the NBA next season, which hasn’t happened to Gonzaga since 2015.

That season saw the Zags earn a two seed in the NCAA Tournament and advance to the elite eight. They were led by Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., a pair of four-year starters in the backcourt. Those two were buttressed by experienced juniors in Przemek Karnowski and Kyle Dranginis. Kyle Wiltjer was technically a newcomer, but he spent the season prior wearing a redshirt, learning the system and developing his body. The only true newcomers were grad transfer Byron Wesley and freshman Domantas Sabonis.
This year’s team, like the 2015 team, doesn’t feature an NBA-ready player. That 2015 team had roster continuity, though. This team doesn’t.

There are three seniors in the rotation, but Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder only arrived on campus a few months before the season. They, like the lone returning senior, Killian Tillie, were recovering from injuries. All these new faces, the transfers and the freshmen, were asked to quickly coalesce around a small core of returning players, each of whom would be taking on a far larger role than they played prior.

On top of all that, there is the inevitable issue of injuries. They plagued the team in the preseason and have been even more damaging over the months since. Tillie has been sidelined for nine of the Zags’ 31 games. The only month in which he managed to remain fully healthy was December, having missed at least one game in every other month of the season so far. Anton Watson had it even worse, missing games in November and December before seeing his season end prematurely in January.
If ever there was a reason to expect a rocky season, or at the very least a rocky start, this would have been it.

Instead, the Zags steamrolled their way to an 8-0 record to start the year. They passed early season tests and absolutely dominated the West Coast Conference in arguably the league’s best season ever. There wasn’t a noticeable learning curve with this group. They’ve just been good all year long. They’re 29-2 now, No. 2 in the AP Poll, No. 1 in the West Coast Conference and tracking towards the top seed in the west region of the NCAA Tournament.

Same as it ever was, sure, but what this group has done is special. It’s a team that lost four starters from last season, but this season mathematically can not lose more than four games.

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