I felt compelled to write something following Florida State's upset over Duke. Not because it moved me in any particular way, but because a tweet that I read reminded me of Gonzaga and the WCC. It was from former Duke star and now current Denver Nugget Shelden Williams. As a Denver native and resident...I follow "The Landlord". Shelden tweeted:
what is funny is that a team will play like world champions against us dukies but then lose to a team that is not even worthy to mention!
I literally can't think of something I despise more than this logic as it pertains to athletics. Unless Charlie Ward, Sam Cassell, and Toney Douglas all have permission to come back and play for the 'Noles against Duke, then Coach K's team just lost to the same team that was beaten by Auburn. I vent regarding this because, undoubtedly, if (and likely when) Gonzaga loses to a WCC opponent, this will be excuse will be dusted off and brought out. Aside from perhaps the road game in Moraga, there's no game Gonzaga should lose in the WCC. SMC has played with ridiculous efficiency all season long but their best win is over a St. John's team that has been up and down all season (they beat G-Town & West VA, yet lost to Fordham & St. Bonaventure in back to back outings).
Yes, my opinion of the conference as a whole is low. However, I have seen this show before. The Zags have walked into the gyms of RPI +250 teams only to get punched in the face and no season made that more clear than last year. After the jump are a few things that could halt the court storms from happening this season in the WCC
The defensive intensity must be dialed up. To me, this is the easiest way to thwart the upset bid. Set the tone, defend the perimeter, take the dagger and the crowd out of the game. In Gonzaga's three losses last season in the WCC, the deep ball was a major catalyst in the upset. USF shot 46% from three, including back to back treys from Dior Lowhorn in overtime...a sight I still have nightmares over. LMU shot 50% from deep and Saint Mary's buried the Zags in the conference championship game from three, going 48%. Each of these games, you'll remember, was scratch your fingers against the chalkboard painful because Gonzaga simply sat back from the beginning and allowed inferior opponents to sit back and light it up from long range. Like I've maintained all season, it doesn't have to be a full-court, find out what gum your man is chewing, type pressure defense but any type of 3/4 press or trapping would really help this team be more proactive in setting a tone.
Continue to shoot well from the stripe. One of the more interesting and exciting stats from the season is Gonzaga's near meteoric rise as a free throw shooting team. Sure, the Zags lost Will Foster, a kid who seemingly fist pumped after every (4/24) made free throw, but the team's overall improvement has been noticeable. At the end of last season, the Bulldogs had eight players shooting sub-60% from the line, this season...that number is zero. Mike Hart is toeing the line at 60%. The most impressive improvement has been from center Robert Sacre who is now shooting 81% this season to date versus a previous year average of just above 60%. We all know the strategy and how tight officials call games in the West Coast Conference. The difference between an ugly win and an upset loss is usually accounted for at the line.
Force the flow of the game into the paint and work your way out. While I'm not a believer that Robert Sacre is a dynamic scoring threat, I am a believer that the West Coast Conference doesn't have a player that can match up with him. During Gonzaga's most recent hot streak beginning with Baylor, the Bulldogs worked from inside out. A big reason for this was due to the back spasms which plagued Steven Gray but I'd like to see Rob and Elias get a number of easy touches early rather than try and force Steven to score upwards of 25-30 points whenever Gonzaga hits a rough spot. A big key to this inside-out game becoming a reality is for a) Gonzaga's bigs to decide quickly once they get the ball and b) Gonzaga's guards hitting the outside shot in rhythm. Steven, Monninghoff, Manny, and Elias can all hit the open three but doing this consistently will be key in attempting to run the table in the WCC.
What other major factors am I missing as Gonzaga looks to move through conference play unscathed?