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Why 2019 Gonzaga is more dangerous than 2017 Gonzaga

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No coach in America wants to prepare for this offense

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My father texted me the other day and asked me if I liked this Gonzaga Bulldogs team more than the 2017 Final Four team. I told him that would be like asking him to choose his favorite child – I love them both equally. But that doesn’t mean I think they’re both equal in terms of talent and quality of play. This entire article is a case for why this year’s Bulldogs are more dangerous than the 2017 version. Of course, March Madness is a total crapshoot. This team could run into a cold spell and lose in the Sweet 16, but the end result doesn’t mean it was a worse team. That’s the fun (and agony) of the tournament. Let’s try to dive into the numbers and see how these two historic Gonzaga teams compare.

We’ll start with the dominance. Through 12 games, Gonzaga is outscoring WCC opponents by an average of 28 points with every win coming by double digits. In 2017, they won their first 17 games by double digits before falling to BYU and ended with a 26.2 scoring margin, the best in the last 20 years. The average efficiency margin in the WCC this season is about three points higher than 2017, which means on a whole, this year’s dominance is coming against slightly better opposition.

As another comparison, Gonzaga’s current adjusted efficiency margin on KenPom today, February 20, 2019, is 34.22. On February 20, 2017, Gonzaga’s AdjEM was 34.13. That’s pretty remarkable, isn’t it? That’s not to say this team is guaranteed to go to the National Title. It’s just fascinating to see they are so similar analytically even though they’re very different on the court. Obviously, the 2017 team relied on defense and an efficient offense that faltered a bit down the stretch. This team relies heavily on their offense and is hoping their defense can continue to make strides.

Let’s talk about that defense. 2017 Gonzaga was elite defensively pretty much immediately. They stayed great all season long. 2019 Gonzaga struggled defensively the first six weeks or so, but have taken enormous strides since giving up 103 points to North Carolina. Part of that is the health of Geno Crandall, part of it is that they aren’t exhausted from the schedule, and part of it is them getting more comfortable with assignments and playing together. So comfortable in fact, that their defensive statistics in conference play mirror the 2017 team.

Conference-only stats (2019 stats as of Feb 19)

This year’s team blocks more shots, hold teams to a lower percentage inside the arc, and forces turnovers at a slightly higher rate. The biggest difference, as we have seen all season, is that they allow too many offensive rebounds. I am not saying this team is as good defensively as the 2017 team – it probably never will be. But they are improving so much that the conference numbers are pretty damn close.

If you pull out the full season numbers, you can see the main difference between the two teams comes in the half court.

Full season numbers

Opponents are shooting four points better in the half court and nearly 10 points better in the final five seconds of the shot clock this season than in 2017. The sole reason for this isn’t necessarily dribble penetration, but it’s certainly a big factor. Teams are getting to the rim more and have a higher percentage on those shots than opponents in 2017.

Now what does all this mean, exactly? Well to me, it points out what we already knew. Gonzaga has been improving all season, but still struggles a bit with penetration and giving up offensive rebounds. Nigel Williams-Goss was a better perimeter defender than anyone on this roster. But the biggest point here is that their defense in conference play is starting to match the 2017’s defense in conference play. And if this team’s defense can continue on an upward trajectory, the offense is going to take over from there.

While Gonzaga’s defense in 2017 stayed elite all season, their offense started struggling the final six weeks. Their offensive rating fell four points from February 20 to the end of the season. The team had 12 games with a team offensive rating below 110. Eight of those games occurred after February 1st. They had five games with a sub-100 rating, including three games in the tournament and the BYU loss. The reason for this is that, frankly, Nigel Williams-Goss was the only player on that team who could take over a game. He carried that team all season with leadership we had never seen before. But the fact is: they relied on him heavily on the offensive end.

In the final 13 games, Goss led the team in shot attempts 10 times. Once teams started keying on him, it was hard for anyone else to take over. Not only did the team efficiency fall the final few weeks, but so did Nigel’s.

First 25 games: 50.5% FG on 10.9 shots/game, 4.6 assists, 1.7 turnovers, 127.5 offensive rating

Final 13 games: 45.5% FG on 13.8 shots/game, 4.8 asissts, 2.7 turnovers, 113.4 offensive rating

Let me be clear: This is not a knock on Nigel Williams-Goss. He is arguably the most important player to ever put on a Gonzaga uniform. This is an explanation of Gonzaga’s 2017 offense. Jordan Mathews was a great shooter, but he was never dangerous enough to create his own shot consistently, much less take over a game. Josh Perkins could, but was still finding his way and was very inconsistent. Silas Melson was a defensive minded player. Przemek Karnowksi and Johnathan Williams did pretty much all of their damage inside of five feet. They weren’t going to take anybody off the dribble. Zach Collins had a huge impact, but was never going to drive to the rim and score from the perimeter. In short, it was all left to Nigel Williams Goss to deliver when they needed him. And the other teams knew this, too.

The reason this Gonzaga team is better equipped for March is because they are more dynamic, more versatile, and most importantly, they have multiple guys who can take over the game at a given moment. The challenge for this Gonzaga team is to not follow the same trend of the 2017 team and have their offense slip up down the stretch. The reason for optimism: Zach Norvell can take over when he’s needed. Rui Hachimura can take over whenever he’s needed. Brandon Clarke can take over when he’s needed. Clarke and Rui have each scored in double-figures every single game this season. Hell, even Josh Perkins can drop 20 when he needs to. This team is much, much harder to prepare for, especially on short notice, than the 2017 team was.

I’ve been trying to think of what the worst-case scenario is offensively in the tournament. Norvell and Kispert would both be ice cold, Rui and Clarke would both struggle at the rim, and Josh Perkins turns the ball over too much. Is it really possible that all five guys can be bad together? Nearly impossible. So then the question becomes: Can a team really hold this offense to under 70 points? Gonzaga has faced three top 20 defenses this season and scored 89, 81, and 90. They have scored 73 on three occasions. LMU did it twice in a very low possession game and Tennessee did it because Perkins didn’t make a shot and Geno Crandall was out. Hard to imagine that happens again.

Texas Tech would be a difficult 4-seed to face, but they gave up 69 to Duke and 79 to Kansas and their offense is not great. Michigan could be a possible Elite Eight match-up, but Iggy Brazdeikis is not a great defender and would be matched up against Rui. Plus their front court depth is very thin. Virginia could definitely hold them under 70, but they gave up 72 and 81 to Duke in their two games, plus if Gonzaga faces Virginia, it’s going to be in the Final Four and I’ll take my chances at that point. In this historic four-year tourney stretch, when Gonzaga scores 70+ points in a game, they are 8-0. When they score fewer than 70, they are 4-4. So if you want a magic number, there it is.

It feels like I’m rambling at this point, so let’s wrap this up with a concise thesis: The 2019 Gonzaga Bulldogs have a higher ceiling than the 2017 Bulldogs because of their athleticism, dynamic offense, and versatility defensively. Three of the last four National Champions (2015 Duke, 2016 and 18 Villanova) all had elite offenses and a defense that came on at the end of the season. Gonzaga is fitting that mold and now we just wait to see if the defense can play well enough for six straight games and bring home a championship.