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Film Room: Gonzaga’s Defense in Fort Myers

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Good, bad, and optimism abound

Chris Tilley | KU Sports

We all know Gonzaga’s offense is likely the best in the country. We saw it on full display in a 24-hour span over the Thanksgiving holiday when the Bulldogs dropped 102 points on Kansas and followed it up with 90 the next morning against Auburn. At some point, we will do a Film Room about their offense and explain how their collective and individual IQs allow them to just run concepts instead of set plays the majority of the time.

The other side of the ball is more intriguing right now. Gonzaga was not a great defensive team last season. They gave up too many perimeter drives, had little-to-no rim protection, and their ball screen coverage was average, at best. While watching the Kansas game, it seemed like they were giving up a ton of open perimeter shots. It was better against Auburn, but I saw a lot of people wondering how jump shooters were so open. Hopefully I can provide some answers.

In both games, Gonzaga switched basically everything 1-through-4. In other words, any exchanges, dribble hand-offs (DHO), or ball screens that involved anyone but the center, Gonzaga switched. The versatility and size of all their guards, along with Anton Watson, gives the coaching staff trust in their ability to guard anyone. As a baseline example, watch how Gonzaga’s guards switch all interchanges off the ball, then switch the guard-to-guard ball screen. Andrew Nembhard gives an unnecessary reach-in foul that negated a good defensive possession.

Against Kansas, Gonzaga went under a lot of ball screens involving the 5-man. Part of the game plan did involve forcing Kansas to hit long jumpers, something they struggled with last season. Depending on the match-up, some Jayhawks were given more space than others, daring them to shoot instead of drive. But there were times where shooters weren’t even contested. It’s one thing to leave space to an unproven shooter, but I guarantee leaving space to Christian Braun, who shot 46 percent a year ago, was never part of any game plan.

And this is where we talk about the problems with switching. There are a ton of benefits to it when done right. Offenses have a harder time creating space in any motion they run, and it can lead to one-on-one isolations. Gonzaga has a plethora of great individual defenders and will accept that outcome all day. The problem with switching, especially only 1-through-4 and not 1-through-5, is that it takes a ton of communication and decisive decision making. If you don’t talk, or if you are timid, you’re already a step behind.

In this clip, you’ll see Nembhard and Aaron Cook become indecisive on whether they should switch what I like to call a “ghost” screen. In the end, both Cook and Nembhard leave the ball, putting Timme on an island in ball-screen coverage, leading to a three. The second clip is something very similar involving Watson and Jalen Suggs. Both guys leave the ball just for a second, which is more than enough time for an easy drive.

Here are a couple DHOs that caused issues. In the first clip, Nembhard does a good job getting under the ball screen from the center, but when it’s time to switch the DHO, he closes out way too aggressively, leading to an easy drive. That’s followed by Suggs switching on a DHO but giving an outrageous amount of space to a shooter. That led to Mark Few calling a timeout because that wasn’t the first time that happened in the first half of that game.

As mentioned earlier, switching requires committed decisions and communication. If you’re indecisive and a step slow at this level, you’re toast. In all of these examples so far, players either didn’t communicate, weren’t under control, or in Suggs’ case, timid in coverage.

One of the best ways to attack switching defenses is to slip screens. Gonzaga knows this because they do it all the time when they have the ball. Here’s Corey Kispert executing it against Kansas, who did plenty of switching of their own.

When a defender of the screener sees that screen coming, he is already anticipating switching to the ball handler. When the player doesn’t actually set the screen and slips to the basket instead, the defender is often times a step late, or both defenders are stuck on the ball, leaving an open man. Here is Gonzaga getting beat on slips twice on out of bounds plays.

After watching all that, you might be thinking: well this defense looks bad, why not just play straight up all the time? Well, because, if you have the personnel to switch effectively, it can be nearly impossible to score. And for Gonzaga, when they force bad shots, it’s almost always leading the other way for a bucket. Exhibit A:

Even if you don’t get full run-outs, though, frustrating an offense can be just as helpful. There were times when Kansas and Auburn dribbled and passed the ball around the perimeter, but the defense was so tight that they never even entered the paint. The offense exerted a lot of effort to go absolutely nowhere and settled for a bad shot late in the clock.

Okay, maybe this ain’t so bad after all. When done correctly, teams get so frustrated that their only resort is to play isolation basketball. And if you can force them into iso ball, Gonzaga has some elite individual defenders that will make life absolutely miserable. Cook and Watson have elite lateral movement. Kispert has improved his quickness. Ayayi is lengthy as heck. Nembhard isn’t quite as spectacular, but he’s solid. Add Suggs’ instincts and anticipatory skills into that, and you’ve got the makings of something special.

All of this is just in the half court. You saw multiple turnovers caused by Gonzaga’s full court press, too. They also worked in a couple possessions of zone against Kansas, and finished the final five minutes of the Auburn game in zone. That will be another wrinkle to keep an eye on.

So what does all of this equate to? In short, high level defensive potential. It will take some time, of course. Drew Timme is certainly not Brandon Clarke, and Oumar Ballo is still learning on the fly, so rim protection does remain a concern. But on the perimeter, this team is going to be much better defensively than it was a year ago just based on their quickness and athleticism alone. Switching comes with mistakes every game. But limiting those and becoming more consistent and decisive will put offenses in quite the bind. That will take a lot of reps, and it’s helpful that they can finally see some film against opponents to see their mistakes.

At the start of seasons, typically offenses are ahead of defenses. Gonzaga is going to be the nation’s top offense all season, as they have been each of the last two years. But if they can grow on the defensive side of the ball into a top 10-15 defense, it’s hard to find any team that can beat them.

Because of Gonzaga’s pace, there will be an abnormally high number of possessions every game, which means they will give up a decent number of points. I wouldn’t focus on the point total as much as points per possession, field goal percentage, and rebounding. They gave up 1.10 PPP against Kansas, which is not ideal, but not the end of the world facing a top 10 team with very little scouting available. They gave up just 10 points across a seven-minute stretch late in the second half to ice the game. Friday, they gave up just 0.88 PPP to the Tigers, which would have been a top 12 result in 33 games last season. Auburn shot just 37 percent from the field and turned it over 17 times.

You may not see this in every game, of course. West Virginia starts a lineup of 6’7, 6’9, and 6’10. It’s possible they play straight up that whole game. But I can guarantee you’ll see perimeter switching against Baylor and many other teams this season. There’s a long way to go obviously, but there are signs that this group can become elite defensively, and in turn, lead to a plethora of fast break opportunities where they excel better than anyone in the country.