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What to make of Gonzaga’s defense

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It hasn’t looked too good so far, but then again, it sort of has.

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

In the past two games, the Gonzaga Bulldogs have won a game at home by two, and lost a game on a neutral court by three. In both games, against the Washington Huskies and the Tennessee Volunteers, one of the big takeaways was sloppy defense peppered throughout.

Through 10 games this season, the Zags have the top-rated offense by Ken Pomeroy, but some of that firepower is negated by the No. 54 defense. Against Tennessee, the poor defense was the talk of the town, especially because it resulted in the game-winning three by Admiral Schofield.

However, it was a stellar clamp down on defense that also put the Zags back in the game during the first half. Gonzaga, at many times this season, has looked much better than a top 50 defense. Unfortunately, that hasn’t come for 40 minutes at a time.

Mark Few and the coaching staff would do well to figure out how to get a full effort for a full game. We can make plenty of excuses. Injuries have taken their toll. The depth is stretched, and with it, sometimes the defense cannot be as aggressive as possible.

In the end, however, the excuses don’t matter. If Gonzaga doesn’t shore up its defense quickly, they are going to find themselves on the outside looking in when the Final Four rolls around. Take a look at the KenPom numbers for Final Four squads since 2010.

Final Four Efficiency Numbers

year team offense defense
year team offense defense
2018
Loyola Chicago 63 17
Michigan 35 3
Villanova 1 11
Kansas 5 47
2017
Gonzaga 16 1
Oregon 17 17
South Carolina 91 3
UNC 9 11
2016
Villanova 3 5
Oklahoma 16 17
Syracuse 50 18
UNC 1 21
2015
Kentucky 6 1
Wisconsin 1 35
Michigan State 14 27
Duke 3 11
2014
Florida 19 3
UConn 39 10
Kentucky 14 32
Wisconsin 4 35
2013
Wichita State 35 20
Syracuse 28 6
Louisville 7 1
Michigan 1 37
2012
Louisville 112 1
Kentucky 2 7
Ohio State 6 4
Kansas 23 3
2011
Kentucky 8 16
UConn 19 15
VCU 47 78
Butler 43 46
2010
Butler 49 7
West Virginia 12 21
Michigan State 33 27
Duke 1 5

There are a few outliers there, and sure, the Zags can try and aim for that game play mode. However, the easier solution is to get better at defense. The average defensive efficiency for Final Four teams since 2010 is 17.1.

In 2017, the Zags rode the backs of Przemek Karnowski, Johnathan Williams, Killian Tillie, and Zach Collins to the championship game. Three of those four players are gone, and although Brandon Clarke is a monstrous blocking machine, Rui Hachimura is far from the level of support required to close down the post. Every single player on the 2017 team had a defensive rating under 100. This season, just one Zag does: Brandon Clarke.

Two quick things about that fact that is unfair: 1) the 2017 Zags had the best defense in the nation, and 2) those defensive rating numbers get skewed thanks to a full year of the WCC. The Bulldogs always come out looking better on those straight numbers because of the quality of opponents. Looking at the quality of opponents played this year, there is a good reason to think that the defense will improve.

First up, we have the obvious re-additions of Geno Crandall and, most importantly, Tillie. Tillie is a much better defender than Hachimura is, and his quickness and length in the post allow the Zags’ defenders everywhere to be more aggressive. There was a lot of praise for Crandall rolling into Spokane as a solid defensive stop. He hasn’t showed that too much yet, but perhaps he will realize that potential sooner than later.

Second up, the Zags’ opponents’ offense ranks No. 11 by Ken Pomeroy, the highest of any team in the top 20. The next closest team in the top 10 is Kansas, whose opponents rank No. 14. The Zags defense has looked exposed at times, but they’ve also been defending against some high-caliber offenses. To date, the Zags have come away with one loss!

Which isn’t to say the Zags can just rest on their laurels and hope it all gets better in the future. The game against the Huskies was the eye-opener and the Tennessee loss was the slap across the face to keep the eyes open. Things do not get any easier any time soon. The North Carolina Tar Heels own the No. 4 offense in the nation. As hard as things have seemed so far, they will be much harder on Saturday.

Tennessee was a gut punch of a loss, but in the grand scheme of things, it was a barely a flesh wound when it comes to the expectations of the year. The Zags can reclaim this narrative with a win at North Carolina. What comes first is figuring out how to put together 40 minutes of the defensive effort this team is clearly capable of.