Folks, I’m not here to tell you how to feel. A lot of us are still angry, shocked, disappointed, embarrassed, confused, amused or a combination of all of those. Look at the comment sections on here and you'll see every emotion in the book. Some of us weren’t affected by the loss at all. Some of us think less of Gonzaga’s chances to win it all. Some of of us have held steady. Some of us think this is the all-important “good loss.” All of that is perfectly normal and you have the right to feel the way you do. Today, I am writing to you, Gonzagasphere, to tell you why I believe the Zags are going to be just fine and why the “blueprint” narrative that has been floating around is silly.
The “blueprint” to slow down Gonzaga has been known for several weeks. Saint Mary’s did not just come up with it out of thin air. The reason Gonzaga was 30-2 heading into Tuesday night is because executing that “blueprint” is so incredibly difficult.
It’s a (not so) simple three-step plan. Step one of the game plan, and by far the most important, is to limit Gonzaga’s transition game. They are the deadliest team in America when they get out and run. Part two is to play physical with Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura. If you can be physical with both bigs off the ball, sag off them when they catch, and force them to beat you off the dribble from 15 feet, something neither is totally comfortable with, then you’ve got a chance. Step three is to force Gonzaga’s guards to make plays for themselves. They are so unselfish that you actually want them to shoot the ball off the bounce when they have it. And then you just take your chances and pray to the basketball gods that they go cold for 40 minutes. Limit transition, key on the bigs, hope the guards miss shots. It’s not exactly a new concept.
The key part of this, though, is that you have to be skilled/lucky enough to execute all three parts. If you only get two of three, Gonzaga is still scoring 70. If all three happen, which happened on Tuesday for the FIRST TIME ALL SEASON, then you’ve got a real good shot to win.
Let’s work in reverse order and see how Saint Mary’s did all this. First, they went under ball screens pretty much the entire night with Zach Norvell. They forced him to become a pull-up shooter, something he’s not great at in the half court. Their show-and-recover screen coverage, along with excellent gap coverage, neutralized Josh Perkins all game. Mark Few commented after the game about how the team didn’t respond well to how the Gaels played gaps, and he was surprised because his team has typically done a good job with it all season. It’s not the first gap-heavy defense they’ve seen.
St Mary's gameplan last night was to be passive in their ball screen coverage. They dropped the big back and forced Gonzaga guards to score. They also went under on Norvell all game. He's now 21-56 (51 eFG%) on jumpers off the bounce in the halfcourt. pic.twitter.com/k4sXYlqXmu— Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) March 13, 2019
Despite all that, Gonzaga still had plenty of open looks that they’ve hit the majority of the year. Perkins and Norvell shot a combined 5-for-25, including multiple open threes and some drives they’ve consistently finished for 32 games. If you want to believe this can happen again, feel free. But I wouldn’t put money on it.
I know a lot of people were upset with how Mark Few coached this game. And to be sure, there were certainly adjustments to be made like there are every game. But this offense has clicked for 32 games. In all 32 games, eventually they found the action(s) that worked. There was no reason for him to believe that wouldn’t happen again at some point on Tuesday. It just didn’t.
Now onto Rui and Clarke. The book on them is basically out at this point. You can’t really stop them, you can only hope to contain them. In the half court, try to make them catch the ball at 12-15 feet. Try to force them baseline and have help waiting to dig on the opposite side because you know both of them love to spin back middle. Saint Mary’s clogged the paint all game. Clarke and Rui are so good that they still managed to go 9-for-12 inside the arc. If you want a legit coaching gripe, it’s that they didn’t get the two of them more touches in the second half. At the very least, try to get to foul line and maybe get the offense going from there. But a credit to Saint Mary’s for clogging the lane and making the guards beat them.
And now to the most important part - pace. The best way to slow down Gonzaga’s offense is to play smart offense yourself. Mark Few said the same thing before the Duke game. Saint Mary’s took an average of nearly 25 seconds off the shot clock on every possession and got a good shot 85 percent of the time. They only turned the ball over 10 times, very few of those being live-ball turnovers leading to run-outs. Those two things completely negate any transition offense.
Now here’s the problem with this being a viable game plan for future opponents. You can count on one hand the number of teams in the NCAA Tournament who naturally play at a snails pace on purpose. Anyone else who does it will be altering their normal game plan, and if you’re changing your normal strategy after 35 games to do something uncomfortable, good luck.
The other part of this is that Saint Mary’s has faced Gonzaga three times. Randy Bennett knows Mark Few’s teams better than any opposing coach in the nation. They had two games of experience to feel player tendencies and come up with something special the third time around. In the NCAA tournament, it’s a different story. In all likelihood, Gonzaga will be facing a brand new opponent the first three rounds, possibly more. These teams have no experience facing Gonzaga, they just have film to look at. It’s impossible to replicate what Saint Mary’s did based off a film session when you’ve never squared up against this offense in person.
Put simply, Saint Mary’s “blueprint” is something so unique that only one other team can do at a level as high as them, and that’s Virginia. If Gonzaga faces Virginia, it’s in the Final Four. I’ll take my chances at that point. Duke scored 70+ both times they played them.
Put even more simply, and probably more importantly, basketball is a game about making shots. Gonzaga has made shots for 32 games this season. They missed shots once. I’ll take 32 games of evidence over one 40-minute performance in how I view this team’s National Championship aspirations.
Exactly. Hoping Norvell misses every three is just that. Hoping. Teams either make shots or they don’t. Gonzaga gave a blueprint of how to beat St Mary’s by 50 earlier this year. ♂️— Scott Van Pelt (@notthefakeSVP) March 13, 2019