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The Big Questions: Gonzaga’s defense

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The Zags lost both Johnathan Williams and Silas Melson last year, not easy pieces.

Ohio State v Gonzaga Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Former Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Silas Melson will probably go down as one of the more underrated players in school history. You can probably add Johnathan Williams, who recently made his debut in the NBA, to that mix.

Both players were quiet, yet driven, and able to lock down defensively at their respective positions. Neither player made the highlight reel as consistently as their peers, and both players left huge defensive holes that will be difficult to fill.

Williams led the Zags last season with a defensive rebounding percentage of 22.6. He was also a versatile defender, able to hold his own against larger post players, while, at the same time, stay low enough to the ground to deal with quicker wings.

Melson was in the same boat. He was the best perimeter defender on Gonzaga’s team by a visible mile. Occasionally, despite the Zags hauling in a top 20 defensive teams more often than not in recent years, fans will still cite “weakness to threes” as a problem on any squad. The mid 2000s memories, when the Zags used to have the perimeter defense of a wet napkin, dies hard. Melson’s steady presence meant we didn’t have to worry about that.

Replacing Williams isn’t as difficult thanks to the next two-years-left-transfer in Brandon Clarke. Clarke is a top quality interior defender and rim protector. The San Jose State product averaged 8.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game his sophomore season. Clarke is just a tad bit smaller than Williams, but he shouldn’t have any issues holding his own in the post.

The real big question mark is who replaces Melson on the perimeter? Senior point guard Josh Perkins is a good defender, but he has a tendency to over commit or try and swipe passes that leave him in no-man’s land.

It is hard to make much of Geno Crandall’s defensive abilities because A) I haven’t really watched him play, and B) he is going to face some much tougher competition at Gonzaga than he did at North Dakota.

Zach Norvell was a freshman last year, and one that loved to shoot the ball. His defense, although not detrimental, wasn’t anything exactly awe inspiring. Corey Kispert, on the other hand, seemingly lost some minutes because of this issue. However, both were freshman. Both had a full year (plus more) to learn the nuances of the coaching staff’s defensive plans and the speed of the college game. Perhaps, we can hope, there will be improvement.

The newcomers Greg Foster Jr. and Joel Ayayi (redshirt freshman) are both big guards, standing at 6’5. Foster is especially lanky, and hopefully, that length will provide him with a bit of extra defensive standing. Thee popular guess is that Foster will redshirt his freshman year.

That leaves the wildcard of Jeremy Jones, who has demonstrated that he can more than hold his own guarding virtually any position. Jones offensive contributions are minimal, so it is hard to see him garnering minutes in a Mike Hart sort of way on the squad. This team, at this level, sad to say, is almost beyond such roles. If the Zags are going to cut down the nets in April, they need players one through five able to score at any given moment.

This question will be one of the big ones facing this squad this season, and a big test of the coaching staff as well. It is no surprise that when the Zags went to the national championship two years ago, they also had the No. 1 ranked defense in the country. The Zags’ defense was ranked top 20 in four of the past five years. It is a direct correlation with the Zags’ recent run of success as well.