In "First Look," Prospectus updates our preseason expectations for some of the nation's top college teams after getting a chance to watch them in action early in the season.
Late Monday night, a hoops nation--at least the portion of it still awake--focused its attention on Spokane for the opening game of the College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon on ESPN between geographic rivals Gonzaga and Washington State. Everyone tuning in was quickly introduced to Gonzaga's freshman point guard, Kevin Pangos. In his second career game and first start, Pangos tied a school record with nine three-pointers, scoring 33 points and handing out six assists in a statement performance. Clearly, Pangos is a quick learner.
Lightly regarded as a recruit, the Canadian did inspire excitement in Spokane after the Zags dealt with point guard issues throughout last season. Former starter Demetri Goodson transferred to Baylor over the summer to play football, leaving the position in the hands of Pangos and sophomore David Stockton. That prospect seems a lot more appealing now than it did a week ago.
Pangos' shooting range gives Gonzaga a new dimension at point guard. He made more three-pointers in one game than Goodson did all last season. Stockton was a little better beyond the arc in 2010-11, shooting 33.3 percent (19-of-57), though nowhere near the threat Pangos has proven to be.
During the second half, Pangos used pump fakes to take advantage of the respect the Cougars had to pay him from long range. He did a fine job of initiating the Bulldogs' offense, though Washington State did create some issues late in the game by getting Pangos to deliver the ball to the wing and then trapping.
Beyond Pangos, Gonzaga also got double-figure scoring from a second freshman guard, Gary Bell, Jr. The highest-ranked of the Zags' newcomers, Bell is an undersized off-guard who is skilled enough to contribute immediately. Coming off the bench, Bell scored both at the free throw line (6-of-9) and from three-point range (2-of-5), piling up 14 points.
Getting production like that from the backcourt is a nice bonus for a Gonzaga team that relies primarily on its strength in the paint. The veteran duo of junior power forward Elias Harris and senior center Robert Sacre gives the Zags an advantage against most opponents. The interior power is a big reason why Gonzaga has spent so much time at the free throw line this season, attempting an incredible 51 free throws in Friday's season opener against Eastern Washington and 37 on Monday.
Coming off a disappointing sophomore campaign, Harris has dropped 11 pounds by improving his eating habits in an attempt to return to the level of play he showcased as a promising freshman. It helps that Harris is healthy after he spent nearly all of last season battling an Achilles injury. Already, his lost explosiveness has returned. Harris had a powerful dunk in traffic on Monday that would not have happened last season.
7-footer Sacre is the Bulldogs' most reliable contributor. First-half foul trouble limited him to 23 minutes against Washington State, yet Sacre still posted his second double-double in as many games. The most impressive part of Sacre's play this season has been his free throw shooting. He improved to 82.3 percent at the line last year, having previously made around 63 percent from the line. On Monday, Sacre shot a perfect 13-of-13, bringing him to 27-of-31 (87.1 percent) for the season. Given how frequently he draws fouls, Sacre's accurate free throw shooting is a huge bonus for Mark Few.
That's a lot of positives about a game that ultimately was closer than expected. Kenpom.com had Gonzaga as 11-point favorites, yet Washington State had possession down four in the final minute. The Zags also needed to work hard to knock off the pesky Eagles, who went 10-20 last year in the Big Sky.
The common culprit was three-point defense, long an Achilles' heel for Few's teams. Eastern made 13 threes in 29 attempts, while the Cougars rallied behind a second-half barrage and shot 9-of-20 from deep for the game. Last year, just two NCAA Tournament teams were worse at defending the three than Gonzaga, which allowed opponents to make 36.9 percent of their long-distance tries. Opponents also made better than 35 percent of their threes against the Bulldogs in 2008-09.
Middling three-point defense is not necessarily fatal for Gonzaga. The Zags earned a No. 4 seed and reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2008-09, when they ranked 231st in the nation at defending the three. (It didn't hurt that Gonzaga had the country's best defense inside the arc that season.) However, it does suggest a plan of attack for upcoming opponents. The undersized Eagles were able to spread out the Zags' defense, and Washington State made a run after going small. Gonzaga better prepare for more smallball in upcoming games.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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