We are now five weeks into the college basketball season, and all things considered, it’s been a very successful five weeks for Gonzaga. Despite the loss to Tennessee, Gonzaga has three Top 50 KenPom victories and five top 100 wins. If they can beat North Carolina on Saturday, they will have two true road victories and a win over Duke. That should be plenty for a number one seed, assuming they don’t drop more than one WCC game. And of course, they’re doing all of this without Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall. If you follow me on Twitter @skarrg0, you have read a lot of my thoughts throughout the season. With a slow week because of finals, I figured now is a good time to expand on a lot of them. So here are five thoughts on the first five weeks of the season.
1. The Explosion of Brandon Clarke
If you watched Brandon Clarke play at San Jose State, you knew he would be a pretty good player after a year of development at Gonzaga. The athleticism was off the charts and his shot blocking was elite. The question would be how exactly it would translate to this season. With Killian Tillie out, Clarke went from a supporting actor to a lead role. And with how Gonzaga runs their offense, they have put him in a spot to succeed.
At San Jose State, only 58% of his shots came at the rim and 42% came on jumpers. This season at Gonzaga, 67.3% of his shots have come at the rim, and he’s shooting 78.8% on those attempts. He’s scored in double figures in all 10 games this season and has at least two blocks in eight of the 10 games. He’s been the KenPom MVP in three games, more than any other Gonzaga player. His 16.9 offensive rebounding percentage is top 15 nationally. He’s the only player on the roster with a defensive rating below 100. In short, Rui Hachimura may be the best player on the team, but Brandon Clarke is having the best season.
I think my DPOY pick for the first month of the college basketball season would be Brandon Clarke at Gonzaga. Look at this ridiculous possession. Closes out under control on the perimeter drops his hips to cut off a drive, then swats two shots with ease. He's been awesome. pic.twitter.com/6QuytJUU17— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) December 11, 2018
2. The Importance of Jeremy Jones and Filip Petrusev
After Tillie went down, the immediate question was “who steps up in the front court?” Jeremy Jones, the veteran senior who has been waiting patiently for his time to shine, and Filip Petrusev, the true freshman thrown directly into the fire, have both been enormous in their roles off the bench. We’ve talked a lot about Jeremy Jones already, and with good reason. He single-handedly led Gonzaga to a win over Illinois. He has missed TWO shots from the field all season and has an offensive rating of an insane 165.9. His defensive rating is betting than the two guys he plays behind in Rui Hachimura and Corey Kispert. His defensive rebounding percentage is the highest on the team. You know who is second in that category? Filip Petrusev.
In an ideal world, Petrusev would have been eased into action a little more. But with Tillie going down, Petrusev has been thrown directly into the scorching flames, and has generally responded well. He struggled a bit against Tennessee, but he was a catalyst in the second half against Washington. What was most impressive was his performance against Duke. He shot 5-for-7 from the floor, didn’t turn the ball over, had four rebounds, a block and an assist in 12 minutes against the best team in the country in his sixth collegiate game. That’s insane.
Petrusev is giving this team what Killian Tillie gave the Final Four team two years ago. For reference, here are Tillie’s first 10 games compared to Petrusev’s in a fairly similar role.
2016 Tillie: 10 games, 14.7 minutes, 4.7 pts, 3.9 rebs, 43.9% FG
2018 Petrusev: 10 games, 14.9 minutes, 8.3 pts, 4.0 rebs, 54.0% FG
Obviously, the biggest difference is that Tillie was a much better defender, but if Petrusev can get anywhere close to that level, he’s going to be a superstar next season after everyone leaves.
3. Josh Perkins – Senior Leader
Outside of the Illinois game, Josh Perkins has been brilliant with the basketball. He leads the country in assists, his turnover rate is at a career low, and he’s been more poised than we’ve ever seen him. His performance against Duke might have been the best basketball I’ve ever seen him play. The biggest question I have is: “Does Josh Perkins need to hunt for his own shot more?”
This might just be my own viewing of games, but there are times where I feel Perkins is too unselfish. I know last season coaches wanted him to shoot more. I’m not sure how those conversations have gone this season, and with his ability to facilitate and him coming off shoulder surgery, maybe everyone is pleased. But there are many times off the pick and roll where he can get his own. The opportunity for floaters and pull up jumpers are there all the time, and knowing how good of a scorer he can be, I would like to see him take some of those. Perkins is averaging two fewer FGA per game than a year ago, and just under what he attempted as a full-time PG his freshman season. His shooting percentage is on line with his career average, he is just shooting the ball less. When Josh Perkins hits at least five FG, Gonzaga is 33-3. And in those games, he’s still averaging a hair under five assists, so his facilitating isn’t hindered all that much. This could just be a personal gripe, and he’s having the best season of his career, so it’s not a complaint. But when Norvell isn’t hitting and Clarke/Hachimura are struggling inside, I would like to see Perkins be more selfish, as weird as that is to say.
The dime drop From Josh Perkins to Rui Hachimura for Gonzaga's first lead of the game! pic.twitter.com/C9Qs8bigwN— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) December 9, 2018
4. Is there an easy fix to Gonzaga’s defensive woes?
Peter wrote a good piece about Gonzaga’s defense yesterday, and I’m here to add some more statistics to the conversation. Gonzaga’s opponents are shooting just 41.6% this season. They have held every opponent they have played to under 50 percent shooting. Their assist/FG ratio is top 25 nationally. So you look at those raw stats and you ask yourself, “How in the world are they giving up 76 points a game?!” Let’s try to figure it out, shall we?
First off, this is the fastest Gonzaga team Mark Few has ever coached. It’s the fastest tempo they’ve ever played at and the shortest possession time they’ve ever had. What that leads to is more possessions in a game, which leads to more points. The problem with that simplification is that Gonzaga opponents have a below average possession length, and they are still shooting poorly and not assisting on baskets... so again, why is Gonzaga’s defense outside the top 50 in KenPom?
Let’s take a look at the quality of shots opponents are getting. Gonzaga opponents are taking 39.7% of their attempts at the rim, according to hoop-math. That’s the most attempts at the rim Gonzaga has allowed in the nine years they’ve kept data. Teams are shooting 52.1% on those attempts and 60.3% if you count unblocked FGs. For reference, the National Championship team two years ago allowed 35% of shots at the rim and teams shot 46% on them. In essence, teams are getting to the rim more frequently this season and finishing at a higher rate. You may be thinking, “hey, maybe a lot of those are in transition!” Nope, sorry. Teams are actually shooting BETTER in half court offense than in transition against Gonzaga, which should be impossible. For reference, Gonzaga’s offense has an eFG% of 68.6% in transition and 56% in the half court. Defensively, they hold opponents to 42.7% in transition, but 48.8% in the half court. Kind of weird, isn’t it? Their transition defense is fine, their 3-point defense is fine, but they seemingly can’t defend off the bounce.
They also cause no turnovers and give up a ton of offensive rebounds. Their turnover percentage is 319 in the country and they are 202 in defensive rebounding. To put it simply, if you don’t force turnovers and you give up offensive rebounds, the other team has more chances to score. And you see that in every box score this season. Gonzaga only has three games this year with more shot attempts than their opponent. One was Texas Southern, but the other two were Washington and Arizona when Gonzaga held them to a combined eight offensive rebounds. Tennessee grabbed 16 OREB and only had seven turnovers. So despite shooting just 40%, those extra 13 FGA than Gonzaga proved costly. Duke only shot 43% but grabbed 17 OREB and only turned it over 10 times, creating seven more FGA than Gonzaga. Illinois had a whopping 19 more FGA (though a lot of that was because of GU turnovers). The point being, Gonzaga is giving teams a lot of extra possessions and allowing teams more shots at the rim than ever before. Even if the percentages aren’t that high, the more chances you get to score, the better your chance to win (thank you, captain obvious).
5. What’s Next?
North Carolina is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, so they better be ready for that onslaught. However, UNC’s bigs are weak inside so Gonzaga should be able to take advantage of that offensively. I was always more considered with Tennessee than UNC because of their ridiculous physicality. I think they win at Chapel Hill, but the first game after finals are always weird, so who knows. Geno Crandall will be back shortly and should help with their issues defending drives. Before he went out, he had Gonzaga’s best defensive rating amongst guards. Killian Tillie returns shortly after that and he should allow defenders to play more aggressively, knowing they have depth behind them. Beating up on WCC teams will boost Gonzaga’s defense back into the top 30 like it does every year. The biggest question will be what the rotation looks like when everyone comes back. As we get closer to that, we will try to hypothesize on what it means for the starting lineup and who loses minutes.