On paper, you have to give the Gonzaga Bulldogs an “A” for how things look now that the non-conference schedule is done. The Zags are the No. 1 team in the nation in the AP Top 25. They are the No. 6 team in KenPom rankings, holding the No. 1 offense and the No. 45 defense. They are 14-1 on the year and have a good chance of rolling through the WCC undefeated.
In reality, there isn’t very much to complain about. However, my fandom has never been about positivity. If anything, it has been firmly anchored in negativity, skepticism, and all-around discontent. So with that said, let’s hand out some grades to various aspects of this squad: the good, the bad, and the free throws.
Overall Offense: A-
If you take a look at the offense overall, it is hard to complain. The Zags own the top offense in the league, largely fueled by the fourth-highest eFG% in the nation. Thanks to the steady hands of Ryan Woolridge, Admon Gilder, and Joel Ayayi, the Zags have one of the lower turnover rates in the nation. For the most part, you can sum up this offense as one that is deliberate with its ball movement and takes good shots.
Only two teams average higher points per possession than the Zags, and it isn’t by much. On all offense, Gonzaga averages 1.02 PPP. Saint Mary’s leads the nation at 1.066 and Dayton comes in at No. 2 with 1.056. The Zags’ offense has demonstrated an ability to score against teams that like to run (Eastern Washington) and teams that play a slower pace (Oregon). The offense has done it against zone (Washington) and other athletic squads (Arizona).
The offense has essentially been firing on all cylinders except for the game against Michigan, whose result is looking more and more like a combination of injuries/fatigue than anything else.
The emergence of Filip Petrusev on the low block and Ayayi on the wing has let the rest of the squad do damage how it best can. Corey Kispert has developed into a terrific outside shooter. Woolridge is adept at driving the lane and creating those open looks from long range.
Outside of free throw shooting, it is hard to have a legitimate complaint against this squad. However, because of free throw shooting, we can’t give the top offense in the nation an “A” grade. The Zags shoot just 66.4 percent from the charity stripe as a squad. That is not the number you want to see when the game is close in March.
Overall Defense: B
The Zags’ defense is fine, but it is also the liability on this squad. Thankfully, with the inclusion of Dayton and Oregon into the KenPom top 10, Gonzaga no longer has the worst defense among the top 10 teams. That isn’t a victory we should be too content with.
Gonzaga has so many new faces playing together for the first time that the defense was always going to be a work in progress. It was painfully evident at the very beginning of the season when Alabama State shot 9-of-16 from long range, generally without a single hand in the face of the shooter. Much of that hasn’t improved too well throughout the season. The Zags are still one of the worse teams at defending the three. Combined with the previously mentioned free throw shooting woes, situations like the final two minutes of the Arizona game make this team susceptible to short bursts of offense.
That said, the Zags are doing fantastic in a couple of realms: limiting opponents free throw shooting and defensive rebounding. The latter is important because limiting extra possessions is always a huge key to winning close games. Gonzaga’s ability to avoid shooting fouls also keeps extra points off the board, and Gonzaga players out of foul trouble.
Overall Grade: A
Clearly, I am not a teacher, because it doesn’t make too much sense how an A- and a B can combine for an A. But hear me out, even with the high preseason ranking, a lot of us were a bit more down on this team before the season started. Most fans wouldn’t have expected the Zags to be emerging from this non-conference slate with just one loss.
So even with the free throw woes and the defensive question marks, we have to reward the Gonzaga Bulldogs for exceeding expectations, especially considering expectations were already quite high to begin with. If that doesn’t deserve an A, I’m not sure what else does.