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What to make of Gonzaga’s defense

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The defense won the day last year, so will it do the same this year?

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Gonzaga vs North Carolina Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Gonzaga Bulldogs were one freakishly well-oiled, balanced machine. They had one of the better frontcourts in the nation, and that was anchored by one of the better backcourts in the nation. Throw in some clutch role players, and you had the makings of a national championship appearing team.

But one of the big unsung aspects of last season was the attention to detail on the defensive end. This was a slightly new look for the Zags, who have been creeping in this direction for quite some time. For years, it was “Guard U” at Gonzaga, and the best defense was scoring more points than your opponent.

Things have changed as of late, and that was more than on display last season. For the first time in school history, the Zags finished with a top-10 defense according to Ken Pomeroy. Not only that, they finished with the best defense in the nation. If you want to point to any reason why the Zags were dancing all the way till the bitter end, that is it.

Throughout the NCAA Tournament last season, opponents shot roughly 34 percent from the floor. West Virginia was held to a mere 26.7 percent from the floor. Opponents all season only had an eFG% of 41.1, shot 29.0 percent from three and 40.2 percent from two (good for first, second, and second, respectively).

When we talk all about what Gonzaga lost after the season finished, we tend to think of it on the offensive end. But the impact might be felt even more sharply on the defensive end. The Zags lost an all-around mountain of a man in Przemek Karnowski. Although Karnowski was hardly a prolific shot blocker, he was a shot alterer.

Zach Collins, with his absolutely bonkers athleticism, was the best shot blocker on the team by a long shot, in half as many minutes as his fellow forwards. In fact, he blocked nearly 10 percent of all shot attempts while he was on the floor. Nigel Williams-Goss was a rather silently fantastic defender. Let’s not forget, he personally shut down Jevon Carter of West Virginia for nearly 30 seconds to seal the victory.

That is a lot of defense to lose, and most likely, the Zags will come nowhere to close to regaining the level of intensity they could display last season. But the drop off isn’t going to be too steep—Ken Pomeroy’s preseason rankings has the Zags defense at No. 18, about what it has been since the defensive turnaround began five or six years ago.

Johnathan Williams is still a good shot blocker, and will have more freedom to roam around the post now that Karnowski is gone. His block percentage was about on par with Karnowski’s, as both averaged nearly one per game. Both Williams and Killian Tillie have a knack for crashing the defensive boards, and both are agile enough to get around bigger competition to find those basketballs. Jacob Larsen is a big dude, and big dudes are usually better than smaller dudes when trying to defend the post.

Most likely, the spot we will see a big transition is in the backcourt. NWG had fantastically quick hands, averaging 1.7 steals per game. His steal percentage (estimation of times per 100 possessions he stole the ball), was second on the team of those who played meaningful minutes (behind Killian Tillie).

Both Josh Perkins and Silas Melson, each fantastic defenders in their own rights, don’t necessarily play that style of defense. Perkins is a bit more handsy, averaging 1.2 steals per game his sophomore year. Melson, however, prefers the defensive style of mean mugging your opponent into oblivion as you cut off their every move.

Part of what made Gonzaga’s defense so stellar last year was the complete team effort on each and every play. In that sense, the Zags aren’t losing as much. Sure, you can’t replace Karnowski, but long arms exist on pretty much every body on this team. By clogging the passing lanes and playing hard-nosed defense for a full 40 minutes, this team has the athleticism to make it all work. They probably won’t end up with the No. 1 ranked defense in the country again, but there is a good chance they finish as a top 10. The telling story, most likely, will be this team again will go as far as its defense allows.