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LMU and San Diego each exposed a different aspect of Gonzaga’s defense

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No need to panic, however.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Loyola Marymount Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Since the Gonzaga Bulldogs have been rampaging through WCC play, anything less than a 20 point win seems rather shocking. This past week, the Zags played the two tightest games of conference play this season, needing strong second halves in both games against the LMU Lions and San Diego Toreros to win.

In both games, the defense looked a bit lethargic and the offense even more so, and for a lot of people in Spokane, the games were a wake up call that not all might be right in Gonzaga land.

Real quick, breathe deeply, everything is OK in Gonzaga land.

In each game, LMU and San Diego were able to antagonize Gonzaga and keep it closer through two different offensive sets: cuts to the hoop and spot up shooting, respectively. In each case, there is not much of a cause for concern from Gonzaga.

Let’s start with LMU.

After re-watching the game, LMU finished scoring on approximately 13 cuts to the hoop, or nearly 17 percent of its plays. This in itself seems problematic, because on the year, Gonzaga has been incredibly good at limiting cuts to the hoop, and defending against them. Much of this comes from the fact that Brandon Clarke is one of the premier shot blockers around the rim. Even when the defense is caught unaware and there is a slightly open lane to the hoop, Clarke’s presence is like a T-Rex deterrent.

On the season, according to Synergy Sports, Gonzaga’s opponents cut to the hoop only 5.6 percent of their possessions, the 23rd lowest mark in the nation, and Gonzaga is still pretty good at defending on those cuts.

However, LMU found success in the game and this was buoyed by the 15 offensive rebounds, many of which came after near misses at the rim. Those two aspects were just a couple of the many issues Gonzaga displayed during the game.

Let’s move on to San Diego.

The Zags repeatedly were burnt by spot-up shooting against San Diego, specifically from Isaiah Pineiro. Pineiro had a decent shooting night, especially when he was given the green light to launch. He isn’t a very good shooter in these regards, but he did well enough against Gonzaga to help keep it close.

Gonzaga is one better squads at limiting spot up shooting, opponents only try those possessions 20 percent of the time, roughly sitting in the top 65 fewest attempts in the nation. This makes sense. Although there is a definitively very fine line between catch and shoot and spot up shooting, generally speaking, spot up shooters are waiting for the ball to come to them.

On the year, Gonzaga has been one of the better teams at limiting assists, ranked just outside the top 10 in lowest assists per field goal made, at 42.3 percent. San Diego is actually pretty good at spreading the love, and generates assists on 58.6 percent of their made field goals, No. 32 in the nation.

Against San Diego, if it looked like the Zags were getting a little torched by spot up shooting, they were. San Diego is much better than the average team for running those offensive sets that create the space for open shooters.

OK, so what does any of this mean?

In each case, LMU and San Diego excelled in an aspect of offense that Gonzaga’s defense has done a solid job of bottling this season. In that regard, there isn’t much room for panic. At any given game, against any given team, the defense will ebb and flow, excelling at different aspects and struggling against others. The overall season’s worth of data and visual examples provide the real story for what we should expect.

The big story for both games was the perfect storm of lackadaisical defense combined with a rather sleepy offense. Gonzaga has rolled through its opponents so heartily this season that we almost forget what it is like to have a close game.

But that is why basketball is made up of two halves. Against LMU and San Diego, Gonzaga outscored both teams by a combined single point in the first halves, and combined 24 in the second halves (12 each game).

Gonzaga’s offense is always going to destroy, no matter how long it takes to get going.

Gonzaga’s offense is the top-rated offense by Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings by a substantial margin, over three points higher than No. 2 Tennessee and No. 3 Duke. All year, no matter who the competition, the Zags have scored. Against Duke, a top-5 defense, Gonzaga averaged 1.24 points per possession. Against Washington, a top-20 defense, Gonzaga averaged 1.21 points per possession.

Gonzaga’s worst offensive effort surprisingly has come against Pacific, when the Zags averaged a season low one point per possession, and much of that came from shooting a rather dismal 6-of-24 from long range.

The arm chair reaction to both games was, if the Zags play like that in the NCAA Tournament, they will lose. That is true. But luckily, those games against LMU and San Diego did not take place during the NCAA Tournament. As a whole, over the course of the season, Gonzaga has shown many more glimpses of “this team can beat anyone, anywhere” than it has of “this team is looking at an early exit in March.”

That is what the regular season is for, after all, to make sure Gonzaga gets the bumps and kinks worked out before March arrives.