Is Rex Walters Finally Turning a Corner at San Francisco?

Sophomore Mark Tollefsen Has Helped the Dons Develop as a Possible WCC Dark Horse This Year and Beyond

I know it’s been a while since I have posted. I have been caught up with the start of school (both teaching and graduate school), so it has been tough to find time to post. That being said, I think I have found a routine, which should open up more writing down the road. Hopefully, I’ll get at least a couple of posts a week, especially as we just pass the mid-season mark in the WCC.

If you have read this blog before, you know that Rex Walters topped the list in terms of the Coaching Barometer Check. It made sense: Walters was in his sixth year, and had not made consistent process, and the sudden “retirement” of senior Cody Doolin and numerous transfers over his tenure made people wonder if there were things going on internally in the Dons program.

Well, since the Doolin departure, the Dons have actually been competitive as a squad this year in the West Coast Conference. Even though they are coming off two straight losses to St. Mary’s on the road and BYU at home and were blown out on the road at Gonzaga, the Dons still sit in good shape in the WCC with a 4-3 conference record heading into today’s home contest against San Diego, a team that has statistically been in the bottom of the WCC in both offense and defense (9th in conference both Adjusted Offensive and Defensive Efficiency). With home games looming against St. Mary’s and Gonzaga, and with “better-than-you think” road wins over Portland (remember: Portland beat Gonzaga at the Chiles Center), and Pacific (127th in Ken Pom’s ratings), the Dons are setting themselves up nicely as the fourth place team in conference this year, which should give them a good shot to make a run in the WCC tournament should they finish the year in that position (they would get a much needed bye).

After the Doolin fiasco, it was typical to think that the Dons would hit the skids. After all, we have seen changes of any sort not go well in the Dons’ favor in the past (cough…Eddie Sutton…cough). That being said, the Dons have been strong as a team offensively, as they rank 37th in the nation in Adjusted Offense with a rating of 112.9. They have been a little inconsistent in conference play (thanks to the stinker in Spokane), as their rating is only 108.3 in conference play (5th best in the conference), but they have showed flashes of brilliance on the offensive end, and they have interesting players that make them a dangerous foe.

What has made the Dons such a strong offensive team this year? While their shooting leaves some to be desired, their ability to create second chance shots has been a strength of this Dons team. They rank second in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage with a rate of 35.7 percent, and they did out rebound the Cougars (the no. 1 rated team in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage) in their contest on Jan. 16th. Kruize Pinkins has been a primary reason why the Dons dominate on the glass, as his 18.5 offensive board percentage is fourth best in the nation. Cole Dickerson and Matt Glover have also contributed as well on offensive glass, as their percentages are 8.5 and 8.0, respectively.

One of the biggest surprised for the Dons this year has been the emergence of sophomore Mark Tollefsen, a 6-9 forward who has the versatility to guard players on the perimeter. He has been extremely efficient offensively, as he is posting a 128.2 offensive rating and an effective field goal percentage of 63.8 on a usage rate of 17.5. However, while his offensive game is vastly underrated (and probably underutilized), it’s his defense and athletic skills that make Tollefsen such an interesting player. He is quick enough to guard bigger guards, and while his block percentage helps confirm his defensive prowess (4.0 block percentage), it’s his ability to hound and make opposing players uncomfortable that makes Tollefsen such a valuable player for Walters. Against BYU, Tollefsen was making BYU players struggle early on, as his combo of height and wingspan made him a defensive nightmare for opposing perimeter players.

Defensively, the Dons do leave a lot to be desired this year, as Walters has struggled to get any consistency from them on that end of the court. They are one of the worst teams in the nation in defensive rating, as they are posting an Adjusted Defensive rating of 108.9, 264th in the nation. Conference play hasn’t been much better, as they rank 7th in the conference in Adjusted Defense, as they struggle to generate turnovers (8th in the WCC in turnovers-caused percentage) and send their opponents to the line way too much (9th in conference in opponent free throw rate percentage). It’s those defensive deficiencies that will probably keep the Dons from being a true dark horse in the WCC this year, though they will certainly provide entertaining games, as evidenced by their contest against BYU at War Memorial Gym.

And still, though the ceiling probably isn’t high for the Dons “this” year, there’s a lot of potential in next year’s squad. The Dons only lose forward Dickerson next year, and though Dickerson leads in a lot of “peripheral” stats (points per game, etc.), efficiency-wise, he’s probably a bit overrated (101.5 offensive rating on a 25.7 usage rate). But, Pinkins and Tollefsen return in the post, and they also return guards Glover, Avry Holmes, Chris Adams, and Tim Derksen, who have also showed solid play in their replacement of Doolin. Also, they will return the raw of potential of Chinese import Tao Xu, who is extremely raw, but could have the ability to help the Dons’ ability to continue to dominate on the boards in WCC play for the remainder of this year and especially next year.

Ken Pom projects the Dons to finish with a 16-14 record for the year (9-9 down the stretch), and if the Dons finish with a record like that, I think Walters gets one more year. The amount of talent returning next year is enticing, and it seems that the Dons have found the right mix and identity to find success in the WCC. Defensively, I don’t know if they’ll ever be elite under Walters. But, if they can at least be average, or slightly below, they could be a real dark horse next year, especially if they continue their offensively efficient play in 2015.

To be honest, the turnaround is surprising under Walters, and he and his coaching staff have been able to weather through the storm of the Doolin distractions and the lackluster start in non-conference play. Walters at the very least in his tenure has proven to be a solid offensive coach, and his ability to still find success despite the wave of transfers and new players is a good sign of his ability as strategist on the bench. While his recruiting classes haven’t generated big buzz in “recruiting circles” (i.e. Rivals or ESPN), he has found good talents in Tollefsen and Pinkins, who fit his system well and are probably better than their subjective “Recruiting Site” ratings. There still is a long way to go, and there is the possibility that USF will still hit the skids and hit rock bottom. We have seen teams already this year in the WCC (LMU and Pepperdine for example) who looked to be dark horse contenders, only to fall back earth due to flaws that they simply couldn’t overcome over the long course of the WCC season. USF has those flaws just like any other team (mostly defensively), but Walters has them playing a style of ball that maximizes their strengths (crashing the boards, playing a moderate tempo) while limiting their negatives (questionable shooters, sloppy with the ball). Walters has made an adjustment with his squad this year that many coaches this year in the WCC have failed to do consistently through the progression of the WCC campaign. Its signs like that which should bode good things for Walters and his Dons squads, especially if all of his talent does return as expected next year (which unfortunately for him and Dons fans hasn’t been a sure thing, and has been hard to determine if its more of the culture of college basketball or something he’s doing internally in the program; I’m starting to believe it’s more of the former).

It may have taken longer than expected, but just maybe, things are looking up and success may be shortly on the horizon for the long-suffering fans on “The Hilltop”.

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Data Sheet Analysis: A Look at How WCC Coaches Utilize Their Benches

If bench minutes history over the past four years means anything, those Gaels in the warm ups know their time on the floor is few and far between with coach Randy Bennett

I was looking up some data on Ken Pom.com (I know I’m addicted to that site), and I found something interesting. This season, many WCC programs rank near the bottom of the nation in terms of utilizing their bench. Only one team ranks in the Top-100 in terms of bench minutes percentage (Pacific), a stark contrast in comparison to years past from WCC teams. While you can access the Data Sheet on Bench Minutes on the “Data Sheets” Page, I’ll post the numbers right here to give you a context of the lack of time the bench players see in the WCC.

Team Bench Min % Nat’l Rank
Pacific 37.3 65
Santa Clara 34.2 120
Loyola Marymount 33.8 130
Pepperdine 33.7 132
Portland 30.6 201
San Francisco 30.1 217
Gonzaga 28.7 253
BYU 28.6 256
San Diego 27.5 274
St. Mary’s 23.1 333

 

Now, there are a variety of reasons why certain coaches utilize their bench less than other rival coaches. For some, it all can depend on a coaches’ style. A team that presses more, plays more in transition is more likely to use their bench to keep fresh legs on the court to play to their system. This is the case for a program like Arkansas who leads the nation in bench minutes percentage at 45.3 percent. Mike Anderson, a former Nolan Richardson disciple, plays a full court, high-pressure defensive style (i.e. “40 Minutes of Hell”). In order to maximize his team’s effectiveness (especially on the defensive ends), constant bench usage is necessary. Of course, the correlation between tempo and bench isn’t always the case as BYU plays the fastest tempo in the nation (77.6) but is in the bottom when it comes to bench minutes usage.

One big misconception though is that talent depth is a reason for more bench minutes usage. Teams who have more talent on the roster, should surely use their bench more than programs who are thin talent wise. So, if this thought is true, a team like Duke would be utilizing their bench than say a program like Montana State. That isn’t necessarily the case. When it comes to the Top-50 for teams who use their benches the most, only six (Arkansas, Purdue, Iowa, Texas A&M, Houston, Georgia, Louisville, Oregon State) came from major conferences, and only one (Louisville) made the NCAA Tournament a year ago (though Iowa was certainly deserving). The same proves to be true in the WCC. The top-3 favorites (Gonzaga, BYU and St. Mary’s) in the conference rank in the bottom of the conference in terms of bench minutes percentage while the ones at the top were relative afterthoughts going into the season (though Pacific did make the NCAA Tournament a year ago albeit as a Big West representative, a much weaker conference than the WCC).

But one year is just one year, right? After all, talent changes quite often and systems may differ depending on personnel. So, I wanted to take a look at which coaches tended to use their benches the most, and which ones did the least. To find this out, I went to Ken Pom.com, found each team’s bench minutes percentage from 2011-2014 and then averaged out the four year span. The results are shown in this graph:

As you can see the four year results provide some interesting trends. For starters, Randy Bennett seems to be the leading coach in the WCC who trusts his bench the least. His 26.4 percent four year average for bench minutes percentage correlates to the 23.1 percent bench minutes percentage we have seen from his squad this year (though even for his standards he trusts his bench even less so this year, as it is 3.1 percent below his four year average). Rex Walters has sort of employed the same “shallow rotation” with his Dons squads, as his 29 percent four year average is was second-least in the conference. Considering the amount of transfers Walters has seen in his tenure on “The Hilltop” it’s interesting to wonder if his “strict rotation” (or lack of bench utilizaiton) was a reason for a lot of his transfers or just one of the effects.

LMU leads the WCC in bench minutes percentage over the four year span with an average of 34.1, barely edging out Eric Reveno and Portland who finished with a four year average of 34. Portland’s finish is interesting because they never led the conference in bench minutes percentage from 2011-2014, but they finished second in the conference in 2012 and 2013, so that explains their close finish to LMU, who led the conference in bench minutes percentage in 2012 (they had the 37th highest bench minutes percentage in the nation that year as well).

The most eye-popping case is at Gonzaga with Mark Few as his bench minutes percentages have fluctuated wildly over the past four years. As you can see by his four year average, Few obviously numbers and minutes-wise utilizes his bench a decent amount, but that sharply contrasts from what we have seen this year (hence, their third-place finish in the four year average with an average of 33.7). In 2011, the Zags led the conference in bench minutes percentage at 38.5 percent (30th highest in the nation). Last year, they ranked fourth in the conference but still finished 81st in the nation (2013 was a year for bench players in the WCC as only BYU was outside the Top-200 in terms of bench minutes percentage) with a percentage of 34.8. But Few at times has showed years where he has relatively little trust in his reserves. In 2012, he trusted his bench less than the 4 year average, as the bench only averaged 32.7 minutes and this year, he showed even more of a lack of trust, as the Zags reserves are averaging only 28.7 minutes per game. Now, the lack of depth in the front court could be the main cause of this, but it is interesting to see how minutes have plunged at times in the Zags program, compounded by the fact that they have had many transfers over the past few years which ultimately led to this lack of depth for this Zags squad (just look at Gonzaga transfer Ryan Spangler who is starting for Oklahoma now). Few has showed a short leash with players on the bench, even though his teams have been the deepest in the conference talent-wise for years. Even this year’s team has a lot of depth on the perimeter, but as displayed from the numbers, he doesn’t utilize them as much as other, lesser-talented teams in the conference.

All these numbers are up for interpretation and as stated before, there are lots of reasons why certain coaches utilize their bench more or less. Whatever the reason, it is interesting to see the numbers laid out, and see how each coaches’ process will fare out for them over the conference season and into conference tournament play and beyond.

Pepperdine Experiencing Sudden Wave of Success

UCLA senior transfer Brendan Lane (right) has been a pleasant surprise for the up-start 3-0 Waves

It has been a while since the Pepperdine Waves have achieved success in basketball, as the program has had quite a history in terms of producing some successful coaches who earned their stripes in Malibu. Jim Harrick led his team to multiple NCAA Tournament berths before he took over at UCLA and won a national title (and committed multiple violations there as well as other stops at Rhode Island and Georgia). Lorenzo Romar built a key foundation for the Waves before he took the St. Louis position (and then eventually Washington’s, his current spot). Jan Van Breda Kolff led the Waves to a surprise Sweet 16 appearance before leaving for St. Bonaventure in 2001, and Paul Westphal led his team to a 21-win season and NCAA Tournament berth in his first year. The bottom line? The Waves have had talent and success in the past with their teams.

Recently though, time have been pretty rough for the Waves. After a successful first season with Van Breda Kolff’s players (including Brandon Armstrong), Westphal failed to reach success, as he hovered at or around .500 for three seasons before going 7-20 in his last year. Dribble-Drive Motion Offense guru Vance Walberg took over for Westphal in 2006, promising that his high octane offense (which John Calipari adopted at Memphis and was successful for Walberg at Fresno City College) would help the Waves make an impact in the WCC. Defensively though, the Waves struggled in his first year (they rated 308th in the nation in defensive efficiency in 2007-2008) and after a 6-12 start in his second year, Walberg stepped down. Former Waves coach Tom Asbury stepped up to take over the program that season and stayed on as head coach for three more seasons, but Asbury was unable to rekindle the success of his first tenure (1988-1994), and he too stepped down early on in the 2011 season.

Now, the man in charge is Marty Wilson. Wilson has achieved mixed success so far as the Waves’ head man. Wilson went 3-10 as interim filling in for Asbury, and in his first two seasons, he went 22-31. Though he brought in some talent like Stacy Davis, who earned WCC Newcomer of the Year last season, many figured the Waves to hover near the bottom of the WCC.

So far, the Waves have been the biggest surprise in the WCC this year. They are 10-5 to start the season and 3-0 in conference play with big wins over BYU at home and Santa Clara on the road. On the offensive end, the Waves have excelled in conference play so far, as their 114.8 offensive rating and 46.6 3 point percentage are the best marks in WCC play, and their 52.9 eFG percentage is rated 2nd. For the season, Pepperdine hasn’t been a WCC fluke either, as their offensive rating for the year is 108.5, 77th best in the nation, a vast improvement on their 96.4 mark a season ago.

How has Wilson and his Waves experienced so much success? We all know about Davis, sure, but the production of center Brendan Lane and guards Jeremy Major and Malcolm Brooks has been a key reason why the Waves are sitting at the top of the WCC standings along with Gonzaga. Lane, a senior transfer who languished on the bench at UCLA, has been a revelation in the post this year, as evidenced by his numbers: 124.1 offensive rating, 63 percent effective field goal percentage, 10.4 offensive rebounding percentage, 8.2 block percentage. So far, Lane’s production has been up there with higher profile players in the conference like St. Mary’s Brad Waldow and Gonzaga’s Sam Dower. That being said, unlike Waldow or Dower, Lane hasn’t been affected by injuries or ineffective nights, which has happened to both players as of late.

Major and Brooks’ production has also been a God send for Wilson’s team. Brooks, though he is not a “primary” ball handler (16.5 usage rate), has been effective when he does have the ball in his hands, as evidenced by his 125.3 offensive rating and 58 effective field goal percentage. The best aspect of Brooks’ game though has been his ability to take care of the ball, as he only has a turnover percentage of 8.4 for the year (in comparison to an assist rate of 13.6, a +5.2 percent difference). As for Major, the Freshman guard has been an extraordinary playmaker for the Waves as he is sporting a 29.9 assist rate along with a usage rate of 22.3. Major still has the same freshman problems in terms of taking care of the ball (19.9 turnover rate), but he has showed the ability and aggressiveness to keep the Waves productive on the offensive end of things. Add these three with Davis, who is posting a better season than his lauded freshman year (which I noted in this post), and the Waves have a starting lineup that can compete with any squad in the WCC.

A lot of props though has to be given to Wilson, who has eased off the reigns a bit in his third year as head man in Malibu. He has let his newcomers play and experience the early mistakes and successes that come with being young players. Furthermore, he has let them play a more wide open game, as evidenced by their 66.7 Adjusted Tempo, which is 2.9 points higher than a year ago and 4.8 points higher than his first full year as head coach. The initial preference for a slower, more half-court oriented game is not surprising considering his tenure as an assistant under Asbury and at Utah under Ray Giacoletti and Jim Boylean (both slower-tempo coaches). However, by trusting his players more and letting them play a more full-court style, the Waves have been much better offensively, as their 108.5 offensive rating is 12.1 points higher than a year ago and 15.2 points higher than his first full year. Give Wilson credit when credit is due: he adjusted to the talent he had on his roster, and it has paid dividends in his third year.

Now, can Wilson lead the Waves to a WCC crown (either regular season or tournament)? It is tough to say after three games, but to be frank, they have as good a shot as anyone. While Gonzaga’s defense probably will carry them to another WCC championship of some sort (ether regular season, tournament or both), the Waves are not much different than other competing squads in the WCC (which at this point, looks like everyone). They are good offensively, and inconsistent defensively (they rank 241st in the nation in AdjD). That kind of profile will probably keep them in every game in the WCC this year, but it could also lead to letdowns as well (as evidenced by LMU and Santa Clara last night). I think the post presence of Lane and Davis, and the development of Brooks and Major on the perimeter will be key factors to watch this year. If Brooks and Major especially can continue the progress they have made this season, then it’s definitely in the realm of possibility to think that Pepperdine could sneakily be the second best team in the WCC. They may not be better than Gonzaga, but they certainly could give anyone else fits (not to mention a loss or two).

Can the Gaels’ Offense Carry Them to a WCC Crown?

Brad Waldow is in the Midst of A Career Season and Has Helped the Gaels Be One of the Best Offensive Teams in the Nation

We have seen some early surprises already this year in the WCC: BYU and Portland are off to 0-2 starts, Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount off to 2-0 starts, etc. Yet one thing that has remained the same is Gonzaga and St. Mary’s being cemented at the top, as they are a combined 3-0 going into their match up Thursday night in Spokane. The Zags have looked inconsistent on the offensive end in their home wins over Bay Area schools Santa Clara and USF, but the defense looks vastly improved with the addition of Angel Nunez to the lineup. The improved D was on full display against the Dons, where they held a team rated in the Top-50 according to Adjusted Offense to just 0.60 points per possession. Currently, the Zags rate 82nd in the nation in Adjusted Defense thanks to their last two performances (they were in the low 100’s going into the slate against the Broncos and Dons).

St. Mary’s on the other hand bounced back offensively against the scrappy Pacific Tigers, as they beat the Tigers 88-80 in front of a pro-Tigers crowd in Stockton. While the Tigers are new to the WCC, the win is nothing to shrug off for Gaels fans: Pacific was a tournament team a year ago, and they were 9-2 and rated 110th in the nation according to Ken Pom going into the contest. However, after three straight losses in Hawaii (to teams rated in the 100’s at the time of their games), the Gaels were clicking on all cylinders on the offensive side of the ball. The Gaels scored 1.33 points per possession and didn’t have a regular player under 110 in terms of offensive rating. Furthermore, they also took care of the ball (only eight turnovers to the Tigers’ 11) and were able to create plays in the halfcourt, as evidenced by their 18 total assists for the game (compared to the Tigers’ eight). Even though the game got close toward the end, the Tigers were hard-pressed to come back in the second half, as the Gales were up as many as 13 with 2:26 left in the game.

Offensively, there is no question St. Mary’s may be the most efficient team in the conference and arguably the country. The Gaels play the slowest tempo in the WCC (64.6 pace), but they remain in a similar mold to Gaels teams of the past: great outside team shooting and a good post player who can get it done inside and keep opposing teams honest. We all know about players such as Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova who could absolutely torch opposing teams from outside the arc. But, it was the presence of post players like Omar Samhan and Rob Jones that made those guys, and the St. Mary’s offense, effective as well. It was the presence of such an inside-outside combo that made the Gaels a difficult team to defend on a nightly basis.

This year, coach Randy Bennett hasn’t changed things much. The Gaels still have effective shooters, as evidenced by guards Stephen Holt, James Walker and Kerry Carter, who all have 50-plus three-point shot attempts this year (and none have a 3 point percentage less than 43 percent). Furthermore, Beau Levesque, has proved to be a Daniel Kickert-esque forward who has been effective inside (55.3 eFG percentage) and outside (43.6 three point percentage). Thus, it makes sense that not only are the Gaels one of the best 3 point shooting teams in the country (43.3 percent, 4th best in the nation), but that they rely on the three point shot for a good portion of their points as well (32.6 percent, 54th highest percentage in the nation).

But the glue that puts it all together and has made the Gaels so effective offensively has to be big man Brad Waldow, who is posting an insane 134.5 offensive rating and 64.2 effective field goal percentage with a usage rate of 26.1 percent (highest on the team). To put Waldow’s junior campaign into context, Waldow’s offensive rating, if the season ended today, would be almost 16 points higher than Samhan’s best year (his junior season in 2009) and his eFG percentage would be almost 10 points higher than Samhan’s best mark as well (Samhan’s junior season). Considering Samhan’s impact and legendary status with the Gaels, the fact that Waldow’s junior year has made Samhan’s best year pale in comparison bodes high hopes that the Gaels can be WCC contenders as long as Waldow can maintain this kind of efficiency over the course of conference play.

For the year, the Gaels rank fifth in the nation in Adjusted Offensive efficiency (118.2). That being said, their defensive inefficiencies make this a vulnerable team at times, as evidenced by their performance in Hawaii. Statistically, the Gaels ranked 176th in the nation in Adjusted Defensive efficiency according to Ken Pom. While they defend beyond the arc reasonably well (they allow a 29.8 percent three point percentage, 42nd best in the nation), they struggle to defend in the paint, as they rank 182nd in the nation in 2 point percentage allowed. Compound that with mediocre steal (235th in the nation) and block (148th in the nation) and it makes sense numerically why the Gaels rate so lackluster on the defensive side of things.

When you watch the Gaels in person, it makes sense why they struggle to defend teams at times. As good as Waldow is, athletically he doesn’t strike an intimidating presence. Much like Samhan, he has that “un-athletic” build, and he can get beat to the hoop or fall asleep defending his area in the zone at times. He doesn’t possess elite jumping or shuffling ability, and the fact that he is able to post the rates that he does not just in terms of scoring, but rebounding and defensively, is a minor miracle. Waldow isn’t alone though, as the Gaels do struggle at times to match up with more athletic players or teams, whether it is in the post or even perimeter (though less likely in the latter). This is evidenced by the Gaels creating a lot of fouls as a team, as they just aren’t able to keep proper defensive position due to their disadvantages athletically. The Gaels are allowing teams to average 44.5 free throw attempts a game, which is 4 points higher than the national average and 240th in the nation. The Gaels draw a lot of fouls themselves (they average 46.5 free throw attempts per game), but their tendency to foul a lot and not get a lot of steals either display the struggles they will face in WCC play this year against more athletic, “drive it to the hoop” squads.

That being said, the Gaels have overcame this lack of athleticism and size before. They thrashed second seeded Villanova en route to the Sweet 16 even though the Wildcats had obvious athletic advantages over the Gaels with players such as Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Antonio Pena (who were all on the Final Four squad a year ago). Last year, Middle Tennessee State was a popular pick to make a deep run due to their athletic defensive-oriented squad. And yet, the Gaels were still able to pull off a 67-54 win in the “play-in” first round game. The Gaels may not impress people with their roster or when one takes a look at them in warm ups, but its obvious that they are magicians in terms of creating offense and getting points, and Bennett deserves a lot of credit for maintaining that kind of consistency even though the players he’s recruited haven’t athletically been much better than former Gaels in years past.

So, can the Gaels be able to win a WCC regular season and/or tournament crown with their current approach? It will really come down to how they play against Gonzaga this year, who is not only in their ballpark offensively (they rank 11th in the nation in Adjusted Offense) but are better defensively than the Gaels, especially with the addition of Nunez, whose long frame presents a lot of match up problems in the Austin Daye and Micah Downs mold. St. Mary’s though can certainly make a statement on Thursday, as the statuses of Sam Dower and Gary Bell are in question, and if the Gaels can light it up early, it may be tough for the Zags to come back with two of their go-to guys out. However, a loss for the Gaels wouldn’t hurt them dramatically, as they will have another shot at the Zags at the end of the year on March 1st (last regular season WCC game of the year).

While St. Mary’s will probably improve defensively over the course of the year (though how much is a question), they will need their offense to have a shot in the WCC and to earn a NCAA Tournament berth. Bennett has done this before with similarly made up squads, and though they may not have the “elite” guard like Paddy Mills, McConnell or Dellavedova from seasons past, the scoring balance they show on the perimeter, and the presence of Waldow, who is having a massive season efficiency wise, will probably keep this team in the WCC Championship hunt. The defensive issues are glaring statistically and in terms of the eye test, but I don’t think they are bad enough to keep this St. Mary’s squad from finishing any worse than second in the WCC (especially after BYU’s start).

Why Kevin Pangos May Be the Greatest Guard in Recent Gonzaga History

Awww…memories

First off, I am a Gonzaga alum. My dad wasn’t a Gonzaga alum, but he went to Gonzaga for his first three years of undergrad (he finished at USF, where my grandfather went, so USF always feels like a second-favorite team to me). I lived in Spokane for six years when I was little. So, maybe I am biased toward Gonzaga in some small subtle ways when evaluating WCC teams (though I have gotten better at respecting the WCC as a whole over the past few years; hence the creation of this blog). However, if there is one thing I know, it’s Gonzaga basketball history. I remember a day when John Rillie and Kyle Dixon were the starting backcourt for the Zags (Yes, Rillie and Dixon. I’m sure a lot of WCC basketball fans just sports referenced those two).  I’m not just a recent fan of Gonzaga who started liking the Zags because of the Adam Morrison days or if you’re real hardcore, the Dan Dickau days. I’ve seen Gonzaga when they’ve been great and I’ve seen them when they were fair-to-middling (I don’t remember the days when they outright sucked, which is always exaggerated in my mind; Gonzaga wasn’t Gonzaga back then, but people who say the sucked grossly overstate it; they were more like Portland is now). I’ve seen games when they used to sport the Royal Blue and Red (wish they’d go back) and I remember when they had a coach who used to get so fired up that he made Mark Few look like an altar boy in comparison (Dan Fitzgerald, RIP, who unfortunately was pushed out acrimoniously due to a funding issue when he was AD).

So, when I say guard Kevin Pangos may be one of the greatest guards, perhaps even the greatest in Gonzaga recent history, I am not shooting this from the hip. This isn’t a knee jerk reaction. I loved Blake Stepp and Derek Raivio. But Pangos may be better than either of them, and this year, statistically he is proving it. He not only could be the reason the Zags win the crown in a suddenly wide-open WCC, but he could be the reason why they stay competitive on the national college basketball scene.

First off, I am only going to compare Pangos to guards who played at Gonzaga from 2003 on. It’s the furthest Ken Pom stats go back. I wish I could go back further, but I don’t have the time, stats or resources to compare guys like Dickau or John Stockton or Matt Santangelo to Pangos (on a knee jerk suspicion, I say Pangos is definitely better than Santangelo, maybe same level as Dickau and slightly worse Stockton; Stockton really didn’t become legendary until he went to the NBA, though he was pretty good at Gonzaga). One of the projects I hope to do is do some historical statistical analysis on some classic WCC teams. I don’t have the time now, but that is something that could happen in the summer, which would make comparisons or posts like these all the more interesting and valuable.

Now, if you have not noticed, statistically, Pangos is having a season that is teetering on legendary when it comes to offensive efficiency. His Adjusted offense according to Ken Pom is 139.2, which is top in the WCC for anyone with at least a 20 percent usage rate. While Gary Bell is close to him at 138.1, Bell’s rating benefits from his extraordinary shooting touch (as he has displayed all three seasons at Gonzaga). But, Bell doesn’t touch Pangos in terms of creating plays for his teammates as well as taking care of the ball. The difference between Bell’s assist and turnover rate is +4.4. Pangos? +12.2, highlighted by a 20.7 assist rate. This isn’t a fluke either, as Pangos’ difference last year was +2.9 while Bell’s was -3.6.

What makes Pangos so great is how he has developed his game since coming to Gonzaga. In high school, Pangos earned a lofty reputation for his ability to shoot from the outside, carry a rather thin team talent-wise and go toe-to-toe with future phenom Andrew Wiggins. If you watch this video, Pangos scored at will against Wiggins’ Vaughn team when Wiggins was a frosh. You can see Wiggins eventually switch to guard Pangos after Pangos starts lighting up the Vaughn squad. But even though Wiggins had obvious physical advantages over the smaller guard, Pangos was still able to make Wiggins and Vaughn pay en route to a game high 48 points.

Pangos has showed a similar ability to drop an obscene amount of points at times. He scored 34 points against Arkansas in the Maui Classic this year, and obliterated a Washington State Cougars team with 27 points as well. But, his game has evolved and that what makes the possibility of Pangos being legendarily great in the Gonzaga lore possible. He has lowered his turnover rate to under 10 percent this year after past rates of 15.7 and 16.5 his sophomore and freshman seasons, respectively. His effective field goal percentage has risen to 60.5 after being 54.9 percent a year ago. He is getting to the line more than a year ago (33.3 free throw rate in comparison to the 26.2 rate last year). And he is doing this with  more minutes than in years past (his 85.2 minutes percentage is a career high so far), and a higher usage rate (21.0 usage rate this year). Some players, who get the uptick in usage and minutes struggle to keep the same efficiency they had when they had the ball less in their hands and when they were on the floor less. Not only has Pangos maintained the same efficiency, but he has actually gotten better, which they needed from him after they lost go-to guy Kelly Olynyk from a year ago.

But when you compare what he’s doing in the lore go Gonzaga history, what Pangos is doing is amazing. Yes, Pangos and Bell could possibly make the best guard-combo Zags fans have ever seen, but what Pangos is doing by himself is pretty darn special. Blake Stepp’s best season in adjusted offense came in 2003-2004, where he posted a rating of 117.1. Derek Raivio’s best season was 122.7 in 2006-2007, but he only posted positive assist to turnover rates only twice in his career (and in his 2006-2007 season, the difference was only +.5). Jeremy Pargo never posted a turnover rate less than 20 percent and consequently his best season efficiency-wise was his senior year when he had a rating of 107.1 (better than his WCC Player of the Year junior season actually). Matt Bouldin’s best year came his junior year when he posted a 119.1 offensive rating, but he also struggled with turnovers over the course of his college career, and he actually regressed in his senior year (his rating fell to 115 his last year). And Steven Gray? After a sophomore campaign when he posted a 120.1 offensive rating, he struggled with more minutes, as he failed to post offensive ratings over 109 in his junior and senior campaigns.

As you can see, there are a lot of names up there, and a lot of quality guards who have had immense impact and success in their tenures with the Zags. And yet, neither of them can touch Pangos’ 139.2 offensive rating, and very few have showed the upward progress Pangos has made from his freshman year to his current state. Pangos came in more as a shooter and he has developed more into an overall player that can step up when needed. He has been overshadowed the past couple of years by upperclassmen and bigger stars, but now that Pangos is asked to shine, he has lived up to the hype and then some. If the Zags want to make the tournament, win another WCC title and perhaps make a run deep in the tourney, then they are going to have to lean on Pangos to make it happen, especially with Sam Dower and Bell’s health an issue at this point.

And you know what? It most likely will happen, because Pangos has been that good this year and stepped up his game that much. Despite the flaws and question marks of this Gonzaga team, Pangos has continued to keep this Gonzaga team humming and currently cemented in its familiar place in the WCC: the top.