Gonzaga beat San Francisco this past Saturday in a hard fought, back-and-forth battle. The offense scored 96 points against a top 50 defense, proving once again that it’s the best in the country. Gonzaga’s defense, however, still has some question marks. Some of them are starting to work themselves out. Some of them may be here all season. The additions of Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall helped mightily and were probably the difference between a win and a loss on Saturday.
USF’s offense is tough to defend. Kyle Smith is a Randy Bennett disciple, which means his teams are incredibly patient. Their main motion offense is a dribble weave into ball screen action with the intent of Frankie Ferrari reading the defense or getting a post isolation, much like what Emmett Naar and Jock Landale did the last couple years. Their secondary actions are a combination of Princeton backdoor to ball screen action, and some form of ball screen continuity that a lot of teams are running now. The point is: everything involves ball screens.
After the watching the game back, I actually thought Gonzaga defended really well in the half court outside of a four-minute stretch in the second half. The Dons shot 20-for-53 (37.7%) in the half court. They were also just 2-for-9 in transition. The reason the game was so close, outside of that four-minute stretch, which we’ll get to, is because of offensive rebounds. The Dons were 6-for-7 on immediate put backs and had a couple others that extended possessions. If you look at Gonzaga’s overall defensive numbers for the season, they hold teams to under 30 percent from deep and just 43.8 percent from inside the arc, both numbers in the top 35 nationally. The problem, at this point, is that they don’t force any turnovers at all, and they give up a ton of offensive rebounds. In this game, six of the seven put back attempts were a combination of over helping on defense leading to poor rebounding position or just an air ball that went to the offense, which happens often.
I tried my best to highlight just five parts of the game. It could have been more, but this is already excessive. We’ll start with the good, move to the bad, and then talk about Rui and Tillie. At the end, I’m going to show you the chess match between the two coaches when it came to Frankie Ferrari. It was fascinating to watch.
To preface: if Josh Perkins or Geno Crandall guarded Frankie Ferrari, 95 percent of the time, they fought over every ball screen. 2 through 5 could switch screens, but never a 1/5 on ball screen. However, if Jeremy Jones guarded Ferrari, most of the time they switched every single screen. More on that later. In this first video (3 clips), we take a look at some of the excellent team defense Gonzaga played.
Clip 1 – Good help side and recovery from Tillie, allowing Rui and Josh to trap in a corner and force Minlend to take a contested shot. Rui’s athleticism takes over from there.
Clip 2 – Great initial ball screen coverage from Norvell to fight over followed by an immediate double down on the post. Norvell rotates to Ferrari, Perkins rotates to the far side quick enough to force a drive into Clarke, who blocks a shot and leads to a fast break dunk.
Clip 3 – Great ball screen coverage from Geno and Rui two separate times that leads to an ugly pass and contested shot.
Part of the problem with switching every screen, as we have seen this year, is that the communication can be troublesome. There are times the on-ball defender feels confident enough where he doesn’t want the switch and there are times the screen defender does the same. There are also times where a decision isn’t verbalized at all, which appears to be what happens in this first clip. The other disappointing thing I saw a lot of is off-ball awareness. Josh Perkins was guilty of it twice in this video and we’ll see it again with Rui later on.
Clip 1 – Norvell fights through the initial ball screen with Rui and doesn’t switch. Second side ball screen comes with Clarke’s man and they both stay with the ball, Clarke expecting a switch and Norvell thinking he’s fighting through again. After the play, you see Norvell ask Clarke to either speak up or that he couldn’t hear the coverage. To their credit, the possession after the commercial break, they communicated during a similar situation and it led to a deflection.
Clip 2 – Josh Perkins simply loses sight of his man trickling down into the corner for a wide-open three.
Clip 3 – Perkins loses sight of his man going backdoor, leading to a layup.
Now we get to something really interesting, which is Rui Hachimura on the defensive end of the court. The kid is so long and so athletic that he makes up a lot of ground if he gets beat. You see in the first video above his ability to close on you and block a shot. In general, I thought his ball screen coverage was better than it has been most of the season. But his defensive awareness, especially off the ball, is still a work in progress.
Clip 1 – Gonzaga plays tremendous team defense for 28 seconds. USF drives the lane and Killian Tillie is contesting the shot. For some reason, Rui leaves his perfect rebounding position to try and block a shot that doesn’t need help being blocked. It leads to an offensive rebound and a foul on Rui. You can see Mark Few after the play talk to Tommy Lloyd about something, and I would not be shocked if the unnecessary help was the topic. It’s great to be aggressive, but you have to be smart about it.
Clip 2 – This is also Rui being ultra aggressive and getting burned. Ferrari baits him into over committing to a post lob and he is way too late getting back to a shooter, flies by the shooter so he can’t get a rebound, and it all leads to a USF bucket.
Clip 3 – At the very start of the play, Tillie and Rui are trying to figure out who each man has. Later in the possession, Rui completely loses track of his man cutting behind him for a layup. It was this play and the match-up questioning that Tillie got angry about at the free throw line the following possession.
It is so nice to have Killian Tillie back. He’s not only an excellent shot blocking complement to Brandon Clarke, but he’s also the best ball screen coverage big guy they have. Clarke is generally fine, but Rui has times where he over-hedges or doesn’t recover in a timely manner. Tillie is superb at all of it, as you’re about to see.
Clip 1 – The perfect show-and-recover that leads to a blocked shot on a McCarthy drive.
Clip 2 – The very next possession, they try to isolate McCarthy after some weave action, Tillie is in perfect post position and gets another block.
Clip 3 – The next possession, McCarthy says screw this, I’m not going inside on this big guy anymore and decides to run a pick-and-pop. The problem is that he’s only hit three 3s all season and shot 17 percent last year. If you want to take that shot, go ahead. It felt like a direct result of the two prior possessions.
The Frankie Ferrari Chess Match
There was nothing more interesting in this game than watching how each coach managed Frankie Ferrari. Mark Few mixed up coverage and defenders on him, Kyle Smith countered with some excellent coaching in the second half, and then Gonzaga was able to counter back at the end. I’m only showing six clips, but someone could do a 30-minute video highlighting how this went down.
Clip 1 – Ferrari is being guarded by Perkins, as he was for most of the first half. Perkins gets through the on-ball screen and the bigs guard the horns action well. Perkins fights through another on-ball later in the possession and then contests Ferrari’s three at the end of the shot clock. For pretty much all of the first half, Ferrari was not able to create like he wants to off their ball screens. Perkins fought through everything.
Clip 2 – Here was the big adjustment from Kyle Smith coming out of the half. He uses his big man to set a re-screen after the initial ball screen, catching both Perkins and Hachimura off guard and allowing Ferrari to shoot a wide-open jumper. He was off to the races from there. Gonzaga was not able to guard how they had been guarding, knowing the possibility of the re-screen was coming, and it took them a little to adjust.
Clip 3 – After Ferrari got going a bit, Gonzaga decided to put Jeremy Jones on him for a few possessions and switch everything in hopes of slowing him down. Knowing Gonzaga was switching everything, Kyle Smith put Ferrari in a staggered on-ball screen to cause some confusion. Clarke was late to contest and Ferrari nailed a three.
Clip 4 – The exact same double screen action, except the opposite side of the floor. He decides not to use it, but still gets Rui to switch on him. He gets the ball back using a dribble hand-off, Clarke is a half second late on the switch and Ferrari nails another three. With Jeremy Jones on him and the team switching everything, USF scored seven straight times down the court. Mark Few called timeout with the game tied at 70 and put Josh Perkins back on him. The Dons only hit three buckets the final eight minutes.
Clip 5 – With Perkins back on him, USF tried that same double screen action, this time into a re-screen going the other way. Perkins fought through the entire thing, forcing Ferrari to get rid of the ball. At the end of the shot clock, Perkins fought through another on-ball, and Rui had one of his best coverages of the night to get the ball out of Ferrari’s hands and into a contested three. Also watch the block outs from Clarke and Rui. This entire sequence is one of their best of the season.
Clip 6 – This time, with Crandall on him, Ferrari tries to use his re-screen one last time. Geno and Rui play it perfectly, Clarke said GIMME DAT and Gonzaga went home happy.
Like I said in the intro, I actually thought Gonzaga played well defensively for a good portion of the game. The middle stretch where Ferrari got going was able to keep USF around. From my perspective, this game showed that if there is a high-level, play-making guard like Ferrari, then Perkins and Crandall should fight through everything, have your bigs show and recover, and not switch. Perkins and Geno both showed the ability to do that throughout the game, especially down the stretch. The WCC has a lot of good guards who are the catalysts for their teams. We’ll see how Gonzaga defends Jordan Ford of Saint Mary’s later in the season and Frankie Ferrari in their rematch next month.