During a postgame interview after Gonzaga’s win over the Akron Zips, Nigel Williams-Goss commented on the challenge set forth by the coaching staff for the team to be one of the top 10 defenses in the country.
Williams-Goss: "Our coaches have been challenging us to get (D) even better. Goal is to be one of the top 10 defensive teams in country."— Jim Meehan (@SRJimm) December 11, 2016
About a third of the way through the season, the Zags are inching towards that goal. Gonzaga is ranked 17th in the country in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating (92.4). That rating is buoyed by the defense holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 40.7% (4th in the country). Considering effective field goal percentage weights the value of made 3-point field goals, it’s no surprise that Gonzaga’s long-distance defending is the component that is propping up that figure.
Gonzaga’s defense is holding opponents to a 26.3% clip from deep, good for 5th in the nation. Watching the games, it’s evident that closing out hard on the perimeter and running shooters off the three-point line is a point of emphasis. Unsurprisingly, this has led to 3-pointers accounting for less than a quarter of opponents points (24.2%) through the first 10 games of the season.
Gonzaga has held 8 of its 10 opponents below their 3-point shooting average. Interestingly enough, only Bryant and Florida—the two worst 3-point shooting teams the Zags have played—shot better than their season rate.
|Opponent||Season 3P%||3P% v. Gonzaga|
|San Diego St.||33.9%||23.8%|
|Mississippi Valley St.||31.9%||16.7%|
The long distance defense has definitely improved as the season has progressed. Remember how many open looks Utah Valley and Bryant got because of sloppy rotations by the Bulldogs? We haven’t seen too many of those breakdowns lately. While there are certainly areas that still require improvement, *cough* rebounding, three-point defense has become a reliable strength.
But how do these Zags compare to past editions at defending the 3-point line? Would it shock you to find out this year’s team is the best Gonzaga squad at defending the line dating back through at least the 2001-2002 squad (I didn’t want to try and find the numbers beyond that season)? Well, they are, and by quite a distance.
The next best Gonzaga squad at defending the 3-point line (again, dating back to 01-02) was the 2015-16 team which held opponents to 30.3% shooting from deep. And, the average opponent shooting percentage from 3 during the last 15 seasons is 33.8% (not including the current season). If this season’s group can continue the perimeter defense they’ve been playing through the first 10 games, they would be the first Gonzaga squad in the last 16 seasons to hold opponents under 30% shooting from long distance.
This season’s current 26.3% mark even holds up well when expanding the scope of the comparisons. The 2016-17 season seems to be a stingy year so far, with six teams (including the Zags) holding opponents below 27% shooting from 3. However, going back through KenPom’s 16 years of data, only two D1 teams have been able to hold opponents below my arbitrary cutoff of 27% shooting from 3 for an entire season: the 2007-2008 VCU Rams (26.9%) and the 2004-2005 Norfolk State Spartans (25.8%). As an aside, considering those two teams pre-dated the extension of the 3-point line in 2008-2009 to its current distance of 20’9", those two figures are really impressive.
Whether the Zags can continue to suffocate opponents at the 3-point line remains to be seen. Conference play will feature three WCC foes who are currently shooting over 40% from deep: Pepperdine (43.3%, 6th in the country), San Francisco (40.7%, 18th), and Saint Mary’s (40.2%, 28th). And, there will surely be a game where the Zags run into a hot opponent. But, defending the 3-point line has become more important than ever in modern basketball, and it’s comforting to know that this is an area of strength for the Zags as they look to keep building on an undefeated start to the season.