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Turnovers for Gonzaga are a team issue

And after biting at the Zags’ heels, they finally led to a loss.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana - Purdue at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The build up to the loss to the San Diego State Aztecs was simmering for a while now. After the havoc defense of the Texas Longhorns forced the Zags to cough up the ball 22 times, the Zags have committed 15 turnovers or more in five of their past seven games.

Which means the Aztecs game, although frustrating, shouldn’t have been too big of a surprise for many of us. Although a lot of the focus and rage after the game was on Josh Perkins’ all around disappointing performance, the blame shouldn’t be landing squarely on his shoulders. Make no mistake, this is a team problem overall, and it is one the coaching staff needs to fix sooner than later.

Approximately 18.7 percent of Gonzaga’s possessions right now end with a turnover, good for a middling No. 146 in the league. The biggest offenders are Perkins (by virtue of being the point guard), Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie. The Perkins’ turnover sprees remain frustrating because he apparently cannot grow out of it. The Williams and Tillie woes are new additions. Both players have seen large jumps in their TO% from last season to this season.

The last time Gonzaga has had a TO% anywhere near this season’s was back in 2011-12, when Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. were freshmen. That squad went 21-7, received a seven seed in the NCAA Tournament, and Ohio State bounced the Zags out of the tournament in the second round.

That team featured some stellar players, including Robert Sacre, Elias Harris, and Sam Dower. But make no mistake, the ceiling on the 2017-18 squad should be considered much higher than the 2011-12 squad. Expectations have grown with the program.

The turnover issue is a team-wide epidemic. If there is a player on this squad who registers at least 20-24 percent of possessions when on the floor, they are turning the ball over way too much (except for Zach Norvell). Perkins TO rate is 23.9. Tillie and Williams are at 20.1, Rui Hachimura is at 19 percent, and Jacob Larsen is at 18.1 percent.

For everyone that has been quick to call for Perkins’ head at point guard, just simply subbing him out, while making things a bit better, isn’t the solution for across the board. Let’s say you have Perkins only turning the ball over twice per game (which is what Nigel Williams-Goss averaged last season), the Zags TO% as a team drops only to 17.48, which is only ranked in the low 70s.

The incredibly interesting thing about all of this, is despite the turnover woes from the Zags, generally speaking, their offense is good enough to overcome it. The Zags are still coming in ranked as the No. 8 offense, according to Ken Pomeroy. And yet, not a soul in the top 10 offenses turns the ball over as much as the Zags do.

Top 10 Offenses According to Ken Pomeroy

offense rank team avg. possessions per game TO% avg. TOs per game
offense rank team avg. possessions per game TO% avg. TOs per game
1 Duke 72.6 15.8 11.4
2 Villanova 68.7 15.6 10.7
3 Saint Mary's 64.1 13.1 8.4
4 Arizona State 73 15.8 11.5
5 Arizona 68.5 16.9 11.6
6 Xavier 72.3 17.6 12.7
7 Purdue 70.4 16.5 11.6
8 Gonzaga 70.7 19.5 13.7
9 Wichita State 69.6 17.5 12.1
10 Notre Dame 68 13.2 8.97

The numbers don’t seem too severe. But in context, those differences matter quite a bit. Take Duke, whose TO% of 15.8 is ranked No. 20 in the nation. The Blue Devils average close to two more possessions per game, and yet the Zags turn the ball over two more times per game. As we saw in close contests, like those against Texas or San Diego State, every possession matters that much more.

This offense is ridiculous potent, and it is why, if the turnovers aren’t happening, we can see them play with anyone. The Zags have an eFG% of 58.4, good for No. 15 in the nation. The crash the offensive glass well, ranked No. 33 in the nation. That is why in games, such as the loss against Florida, the Zags were able to keep pace. Gonzaga finished with a TO% of 14.4 percent against a team, which at the time seemed like a potential Final Four squad.

That Florida game, however, was the perfect storm. The Zags finished with one of their lower TO% of the year and, because of the double-overtime, their highest number of possessions in the year. If the Zags face a team that enjoys to slow it down and grind it out, such as Texas and San Diego State, those two measures of balance—total number of possessions and TO%—start to move in the wrong direction.

Luckily, conference play could not come any sooner. Very few teams in the West Coast Conference, highlighted by Saint Mary’s, have any sort of idea how to play defense. Here are the conferences defensive ranks according to Pomeroy:

  1. Gonzaga - No. 42
  2. San Diego - No. 53
  3. San Francisco - No. 80
  4. BYU - No. 91
  5. Saint Mary’s - No. 177
  6. Pacific - No. 235
  7. Loyola Marymount - No. 268
  8. Santa Clara - No. 286
  9. Portland - No. 317
  10. Pepperdine - No. 334

Entering the conference play, barring a couple of squads like San Diego or San Francisco, few teams should force the turnover issue very much. That should allow some time for Perkins, Williams, Tillie, and the rest of the squad to settle down and learn how to keep control of the ball.

If they don’t figure it out, the Zags will face inevitably face a strong defense in the NCAA Tournament, and they will be packing their bags for a disappointing flight home.