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Gonzaga’s Defense is the Key This Season

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The Bulldogs will only go as far as the defense can take them.

NCAA Basketball: Texas Southern at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into this season, the Gonzaga Bulldogs had their fair share of questions. That is only natural for a squad that is replenishing more than a majority from last year’s Elite Eight team.

Although technically, of the solidified eight-man rotation only four of the faces are brand new, it honestly feels like quite a bit more. Filip Petrusev averaged 6.5 minutes per game once conference play started last season, and Joel Ayayi only appeared in 14 of 22 once the calendars turned to 2019. The Zags returned just 23.4 percent of last year’s minutes.

One of the questions coming into the year was how the Zags would meld together on defense. Gonzaga has historically played a team-oriented defense—one that relies less on pure athleticism and more on basketball IQ. The 2016-17 national championship appearing Zags, statistically the school’s best defensive squad, didn’t pull it off by forcing turnovers or play particularly aggressive defense. They just played smart defense and held opponents to a nation-low 41.1% eFG. When you do that, you win games.

The saying has always gone “defense wins championships,” and, well, it does. The lowest-ranked defense to win the title in the past decade was the Connecticut Huskies in 2011 at No. 15, and that came from a team that played absolutely out of its mind to win (UConn finished 9-9 in the Big East and entered March Madness as No. 9 seed).

So the question goes for Gonzaga, do they have the defense to make a deep run in March? My answer: As it stands now, probably not.

Here are the current KenPom top 10 teams with their defensive rankings throughout the season (coinciding with the day after Gonzaga games). As you can see, KenPom’s preseason predictive models only got three teams pretty far off their marks, two of them in a bad way (Gonzaga and Michigan State), and one of them in a good way (Maryland).

Now, there is plenty of room for optimism here. Anton Watson, arguably the team’s best and most versatile defender, went down with an injury on Nov. 27, the moment things really started going south. Joel Ayayi, who is probably the best perimeter defender on the team, is seeing more minutes after taking the starting spot from Admon Gilder. Killian Tillie has looked much better on the defensive end than he did last year.

There is also a bit of room for concern. The Zags still give up a maddening amount of open threes to opponents. Both Corey Kispert and Filip Petrusev are merely average defenders on their very best days. Considering that Kispert leads the team in minutes and the offense tends to flow through Petrusev, this means that the other three Zags on the court have to do more than their fair share to clamp down the defense.

The Zags are one of the better defensive rebounding teams in the country, and they don’t give up that many free throw attempts—all of that points to a couple of good building block signs for overall team defense. The eFG% is still middle of the road, not even in the top 100. This year, the defense will not be this team’s identity, and that might point to how far the Zags can advance in March.