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For Gonzaga to succeed, the perimeter defense has to improve

Gonzaga v Texas Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images

There are two very clear issues facing the Gonzaga Bulldogs right now—overall defense and turnovers. One or the other of those issues would be bad enough and make it hard to win games against elite teams. Combine the two and you can essentially kiss any hopes of a competitive score goodbye.

Gonzaga has only two losses to two very good teams in Purdue and Texas. However, Gonzaga didn’t merely lose those games, they lost by substantial amounts, 18 points, and 19 points respectively. The last time the Zags came anywhere close to those levels of disappointment are in the 2019-10 season, in which Gonzaga lost to Kansas State by 17 and Washington State by 21. Ultimately, that team would lose six non-conference games and finish with a 24-9 overall record and a No. 11 seed in the tournament.

The Zags probably aren’t going to fall off the cliff that steeply. But if they don’t fine-tune their defense, and accomplish that task quickly, it could happen. Just take a look at Gonzaga’s numbers over the past few years. Everything is much worse than usual.

KenPom Defensive Numbers

Year KP Defensive Rating Opp PPG Opp 2% Opp 3% Opp 3PA/FGA Steal % Non-steal TO %
Year KP Defensive Rating Opp PPG Opp 2% Opp 3% Opp 3PA/FGA Steal % Non-steal TO %
Current 50 76.7 50.4 (197) 34.7 (220) 39.0 (218) 9.3 (181) 7.9 (299)
2022 10 66.2 41.8 (1) 30.5 (37) 33.3 (49) 8.7 (232) 7.5 (322)
2021 11 69.7 47.0 (76) 32.7 (112) 33.7 (67) 10.6 (57) 8.7 (275)
2020 43 67.8 47.4 (91) 32.0 (108) 34.1 (71) 10.1 (87) 8.3 (318)
2019 12 64.9 43.4 (6) 30.4 (20) 34.9 (52) 10.5 (48) 8.4 (295)
2018 18 67.7 44.1 (10) 35.0 (172) 35.7 (114) 9.0 (150) 8.5 (305)
2017 1 61.5 40.0 (2) 29.2 (2) 32.1 (40) 9.6 (95) 7.5 (347)

We all knew that losing Chet Holmgren would hurt and the numbers reflect that. However, the Zags have also played seasons without Chet Holmgren in which Drew Timme or Filip Petrusev was your major post player/defensive liability. Those teams were still able to clean up the act somewhat, and much of it starts on the perimeter defense.

To open the season, teams have exploited that weakness with a relentless focus on dribble-drive penetration. So far, for the most part, it is working. Teams can either: A) Find a good look for two points, or B) Kick it out for an open three.

The loss to Texas showcases why this is a problem. Despite the avalanche of three-pointers that buried Gonzaga, Texas is not a good outside shooting team. Case and point: In their four other games this season, the Longhorns have hit just 26.6 percent of their three-point attempts.

However, when opposing players can easily make it to the hoop, force the defense to collapse, and then kick it open for a three, well, that easily raises the percentages of any quality college shooter. Against Texas, of their 66 field goal attempts, 12 were unguarded jump shots, according to Synergy Sports. Five of their three-point makes were unguarded.

The two numbers to pay close attention to here are the opponents’ two-point percentage and the overall percentage of an opponents’ three-point attempts relative to field goal attempts. If a team is good at defense, they can do two things well: Force opponents into tough shots (solid two-point percentage) and deny three-point attempts.

College shooters have quick releases and will still take plenty of guarded three-point attempts, but, in general, they won’t take too many heavily contested bad three-point attempts. So if a team penetrates and kicks it out to a somewhat guarded shooter, more often than not, that three-point attempt is denied (of course, passing it around the perimeter might lead to a more open shot).

As we can see in the chart above, Gonzaga is on the bad to awful end at both of those categories. That pretty much means, at this very moment in the season, if Gonzaga is going to win a game, it needs its offense to be running borderline perfectly.

So what does all of this mean moving forward? Hunter Sallis is largely the teams best perimeter defender, but his offense, although looking better, is a drop-off from Rasir Bolton’s. Nolan Hickman showed some flashes of improvement against Xavier, containing Souley Boum to no first half points.

Drew Timme is still going to be in the post and has to be no matter what. Despite his defensive limitations, his offensive potential is what keeps Gonzaga in games, as we have seen multiple times this season. Because Timme needs to exist, Anton Watson is a versatile defender who can help offset some of that.

In general, however, the Zags just need to be faster and smarter on the perimeter. Whether or not this means Mark Few starts to lean into a small ball lineup more often or just somehow get the guys playing as a team unit better, the defense must improve if the Zags are going to make a meaningful run in the tournament. If it doesn’t, expect a few more losses in the near term, and not just limited to the non-conference schedule like we’ve become accustomed to.