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Gonzaga’s Defense is Starting to Show Up

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Let the hype continue

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Pacific POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

If you are an absolute nerd like myself, you check Ken Pomeroy’s site rather religiously throughout the season. Especially in years such as this one, there is a certain thrill that comes with watching Gonzaga rise back up by decimal points to the top offense in the nation, and a certain defeat seeing the Zags slightly fall behind the Baylor Bears for No. 1 overall.

Of course, statistics only tell part of a story in analyzing any sport, but one of the advantages of KenPom’s metrics is looking throughout the season and identifying positive (or worrying) trends. Right now, the Gonzaga defense has been on a month-long climb in the right direction.

Below is a table of Gonzaga’s adjusted defensive efficiency alongside its corresponding national ranking the day after each game this season.

Gonzaga’s Defense

Date After Game Adjusted Defense Overall Rank
Date After Game Adjusted Defense Overall Rank
Nov. 27 89 15
Nov. 28 87.9 11
Dec. 4 88 17
Dec. 20 88.8 13
Dec. 22 88.9 14
Dec. 23 89.5 13
Dec. 27 90.2 18
Dec. 29 90.5 19
Dec. 30 90.7 18
Jan. 3 90.4 17
Jan. 8 90.5 15
Jan. 10 91.7 20
Jan. 15 91.5 21
Jan. 17 90.6 15
Jan. 24 90.4 11
Jan. 31 90 11
Feb. 5 89.1 9
Feb. 9 88.5 6

“But Peter,” says either a Gonzaga fan or some idiot Gonzaga-denier from the midst of the wasteland of Twitter, “The WCC is not good. Who cares if Gonzaga is beating not good teams?”

This is true. The WCC is not a very good conference, especially relative to the strength of the Zags, but KenPom’s rankings are adjusted for a reason. Even looking deeper into it, the Zags have slowly but surely been dialing in against decent offenses.

For example, BYU’s offense (ranked No. 48) has scored more than one point per possession (PPP) in 13 out of their 20 games this season. Two of those games they haven’t came at the hands of the Zags’ defense.

Looking at Gonzaga’s defense this year, they are responsible for the two worst offensive showings by Pacific (0.65 and 0.78 PPP), the second-worst by Auburn (0.88 PPP), the second-worst by San Francisco (0.84), the fourth- and fifth-worst by BYU (0.93, 0.95), and on and on.

And because it would not be a piece talking about how good the Zags are without comparing them to Baylor, amongst the similar competition (two teams), the Zags performed better.

  • Zags Offense/Defense PPP vs. Kansas: 1.24 / 1.10
  • Baylor Offense/Defense PPP vs. Kansas: 1.18 / 1.06
  • Zags Offense/Defense PPP vs. Auburn: 1.19 / 0.88
  • Baylor Offense/Defense PPP vs. Auburn: 1.17 / 1.00

I’m of the firm mindset that if Gonzaga and Baylor play each other 10 times, each team is winning five games. That is probably how good both of them are, a rarity in college basketball. On a national level, Baylor gets all the praise for its defense and Gonzaga gets all the praise for its offense. Both teams are getting a bit of a disservice there because the Bears and the Zags are the two most complete teams in college basketball.

For the Zags, the big difference is extrapolating their wins over lesser WCC competition to what that means on a grander scale, whereas Baylor’s existence in the Big 12 takes care of that conundrum.

Gonzaga’s defense has demonstrated its ability throughout the season. Now that we are a bit through it, we can pay attention to the numbers. The Zags held West Virginia, the No. 10 offense, to their fifth-lowest offensive-efficiency in a game. They held Virginia, the No. 13 offense, to their seventh-lowest. Most impressively, they held Iowa, the top-ranked offense, to their third-lowest offensive-efficiency mark this season.

There are now three teams in the KenPom top 10 who have both a top 10-ranked offense and defense: Gonzaga, Baylor, and Michigan (in sort of a distant third place). Presumably, the championship game we all deserve is between Gonzaga and Baylor, and it looks like the Zags’ defense is lining up to hold the line.