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2016 NCAA Tournament: How should the Zags handle late game situations?

The answer is they should handle them better than Northern Iowa and Stephen F. Austin

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Failure is instructive. Northern Iowa and Stephen F. Austin's respective games in the Round of 32 provided great theater for college basketball fans, but it's their failure and questionable decision making down the stretch that are instructive in how the Zags should handle the closing minutes of the game (provided the game is not a blow out).

Earlier in the season, the Bulldogs had a penchant for blowing second-half leads. Losses to Arizona, BYU, and Saint Mary's come to mind. Whether big (Arizona and Saint Mary's), or small (BYU), no lead was safe. Even the narrow win over UConn during the Battle 4 Atlantis featured Gonzaga squandering a 21-point second-half lead. While the Zags have certainly evolved since those games, it's not a bad thing to discuss the best ways to preserve victory while ahead.

There have been numerous times in my basketball-watching life, and most recently during this tournament, that I have seen a team establish a lead through precise and efficient execution, only to shoot themselves in the foot (looking at you UNI, SFA, and St. Joe's). Let's learn from these teams, without having to suffer their fates.

Far too often in the last few days, teams have taken (fairly) comfortable leads late in games, and opted to get out of their offense to start burning some clock. I hate this strategy. There are assuredly some exceptions to this, but generally speaking, dribbling the air out of the ball at the halfcourt line for 20 seconds, with 2 minutes left in the game, before running an isolation play, or ill-conceived dribble handoff, typically ends in a race against the shot clock to hoist a difficult shot under duress.

Running bad offense to burn time off the clock will more often than not end in an empty possession. This is the equivalent of running a "prevent" defense in football. You know what they say about "prevent" defenses? The only thing it prevents you from doing is winning. The best way to protect a lead, is to add to it.

The other essential aspect of protecting a lead, is to maintain composure and awareness of game situations. Watching UNI give up a 14-2 run in 33 seconds was heartbreaking, and it was entirely avoidable. Poor inbounding execution was the single biggest reason for UNI's loss. Twice, UNI got trapped because the inbounds pass went to a man who was too shallow to the baseline/corner, which allowed the defense to immediately trap the recipient. While I respect the old "jump and chuck the ball at the defender in hopes of getting a ricochet out of bounds" trick, Texas A&M was wise to this game and used their best Dodgeball skills to evade the throw and scoop up the ball for an easy layup.

One UNI inbound was so poor, that the ball simply went untouched and out of bounds on the sideline, with the ensuing A&M inbound resulting in a made 3-pointer (of course). Also, note the body language of the UNI players (not good).

Credit (a lot of it) certainly has to go to the defense for perfectly executing their press and trapping the ball on these plays, but the offense can take steps to make it easier for themselves in these types of situations. First, don't inbound the ball into a corner. Just don't. Second, the inbound-targets should be running across diagonally and/or screening for one another in order to create space and catch the ball on the go, rather than being stationary. Third, the inbounder needs to make himself immediately available to get a pass back. Fourth, the inbounder can run the baseline after a made basket to improve their angle. Fifth, a teammate can cross the baseline to receive a pass from the inbounder. Take advantage of the rules and make the defense earn it. And if all else fails, the Josh Perkins "throw the ball in the air and down the court" move that he used at Pepperdine isn't the worst option in the world.

It's very unlikely that the same scenario which unfolded between Northern Iowa and Texas A&M repeats itself in a future Zag game, but the principles can still apply. Northern Iowa collectively lost their minds at the end of the game, under extreme duress from A&M. It helps to think ahead about how a team will trap, what the foul situation is, how many timeouts are left, etc. Staying mindful of game situations helps a player keep his composure in the heat of the moment, and will help the team secure the W.