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Gonzaga Aims for Three-Straight Years of Best Offense in Nation

Can they pull it off for the first time in KenPom history?

NCAA Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Gonzaga vs Saint Mary’s Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past two seasons, the Gonzaga Bulldogs have owned the top offense in the nation according to stats guru Ken Pomeroy. In doing so, they joined Wake Forest (2004-05) and North Carolina (2008-09) as the only schools in the nation to have back-to-back seasons as the nation’s best offense.

With Gonzaga entering the preseason ranked by many national pundits as the top team in the nation, it isn’t crazy to wonder if the Zags can make it three-in-a-row. Doing so is easier said than done, of course. The Bulldogs are gaining some substantial pieces, highlighted by the Tricky Trio of Jalen Suggs, Dominick Harris, and Julian Strawther, and will also have a full season of Anton Watson and Oumar Ballo at their disposal. They still lost some key pieces, highlighted by Filip Petrusev’s early departure for Europe and the graduation of Killian Tillie.

Gonzaga’s amazing offense over the past two years hasn’t been historic. In the past two seasons, the difference between Gonzaga and the No. 2 team in adjusted efficiency was 1.1 (2019) and 1.8 (2020). Villanova, the top offense in 2018, was 5.1 points better than No. 2 Purdue. Since the 2002 season, the difference between the No. 1 and No. 2 offenses on KenPom is on average 1.59, putting Gonzaga’s efforts at both above and below the middle line.

Losing Petrusev and Tillie does not help the cause either. They were the two top players in the team in offensive box plus/minus, and Killian Tillie’s offensive rating of 128.2 was the highest on the squad.

However, in terms of how well the offense can continue to click after his departure, losing Petrusev doesn’t hurt as much as it should—largely because the Zags have Drew Timme waiting for his sophomore year. There was no question that the Gonzaga offense revolved around getting Petrusev the rock in the post. He was excellent with the ball and the right positioning. But, as our Steven Karr noted a bit in an earlier article about minute distribution, the lineups with Petrusev were not necessarily the most efficient.

Quick pause: It is important to note that Ken Pomeroy’s statistics are all about efficiency. At its easiest level, the best offensive team is the one that scores the most points per possession. If the Zags score 100 points, that is great. If it takes them 100 shots to do so, that isn’t a very good game.

In terms of offensive efficiency with his teammates, as pulled by Evan Miya’s site, Timme was more efficient on offense with the rest of the team compared to Petrusev. Timme and Petrusev did not function too well together on the floor at the same time. If Timme is able to spread the floor just a little bit, not quite Killian Tillie length but in that general direction, there will be improved room for him and Ballo to co-exist together. That, in itself, should help give the offense a little bit of a boon.

One of the big question marks to the Zags’ quest for the offensive efficiency throne will have to do with Suggs, the five-star incoming recruit who headlines the Tricky Trio. Ryan Woolridge was an efficient scorer (for the most part), but dragged down his rating due to his poor free throw shooting (more on that in a second). Suggs enters the Gonzaga program as a talented scorer, but he still enters the program as a freshman. During his time with the USA Basketball, Suggs’ career FG% is just 34.9. In terms of efficiency, that isn’t good at all. Considering that Suggs figures to be a large part of the offense, his shooting numbers will need to pass muster for the Zags to own the top offense. They probably will if the hype is real.

So about that free throw shooting...In Dean Oliver’s Basketball on Paper, he establishes the ways a possession can end: a made field-goal attempt, a missed field-goal attempt combined with a defensive rebound, free throws in which the second is made, free throws in which the second is missed and rebounded by the defense, or a turnover. Because offensive rating is basically points-per-possession, this is why we pay attention to those statistics.

In short, the equation, which differs slightly depending on who is crunching their numbers, ends up looking roughly like this: possession = FGA + 0.475 x FTA - ORB + TO. Note the inclusion of free throw attempts in there.

Last season, the Zags made it to the line, a lot. Their 789 free throw attempts were the fifth-highest in the nation. Unfortunately, their 68.8 percent team effort was only No. 254. Using rough math plugged into the equation above, the Zags averaged roughly 1.199 points-per-possession last season.

However, let’s say the Zags shot middle of the road at the free throw line to the tune of 71.7 percent as a team. Last season, the Zags would have averaged 1.2029 points-per-possession. It may not seem like much, but in a game of decimal points, every increase goes a long way. Let’s say the Zags were good at it like they were in 2018-19. That would’ve increased the mark to 1.2228.

Free throw shooting is really the only area of the Zags to improve upon. Last season, Gonzaga was a ruthlessly-efficient shooting team. They rarely turned the ball over and they hit the offensive glass with the best of the rest of college basketball. In all of the statistics that pile into offensive ratings, the only real drag was the free throw percentage.

Nine hundred words later, the succinct summary of all this drivel is that Gonzaga has a fantastic chance to become the first team in the limited KenPom era history to lead the nation in offensive efficiency for three years in a row. Although Gonzaga lost some key pieces from the previous two years, they retained some important pieces and acquired some new ones. Now, let’s just cross our fingers and hope a season happens!