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The slow and painful decline of Gonzaga’s defense

The Zags’ defense is currently ranked the worst since 2006.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Pacific Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

After losing to the Loyola Marymount Lions at home, a painful and stinging loss, the smart gamble would have been to put the Zags’ rebounding with a strong performance and getting back on track.

The 99-90 win in Stockton was anything but. Sure, the Zags got the win, but against the most mediocre of offenses, the Zags’ defensive struggles, the same issues that have been plaguing the team all year, were highlighted in perplexing ways.

The math and the algorithms reflected that. Leading into the game against Pacific, KenPom ranked the Zags’ defense at No. 71. After the game, the Zags’ defense had its largest drop of the season, falling to No. 90.

Arguably, the game against Pacific was the worst defensive performance of the year. Pacific’s 90 points were tied with Alabama for the second-most points against (Texas leads the way with 93). The Tigers averaged an astonishing 1.22 points per possession, the third-highest mark this season behind Purdue (1.25) and Texas (1.26). The main difference between Pacific and those other two teams? Purdue’s offense is ranked No. 4 and Texas is No. 15. Pacific is No. 153.

The below chart shows the Zags’ KenPom defensive ranking the morning of the opponent listed. The opposing team’s KenPom offensive ranking is also what it was the morning of the game, with the points per possession allowed as the result of the box score. It isn’t pretty.


Game Number Opponent Opponent's KP Offense Efficency PPP Allowed Gonzaga's Defense Ranking
Game Number Opponent Opponent's KP Offense Efficency PPP Allowed Gonzaga's Defense Ranking
1 North Florida 99.6 (165) 0.79 26
2 Michigan State 109.2 (26) 0.88 22
3 Texas 112.5 (12) 1.26 16
4 Kentucky 114.5 (6) 0.95 28
5 Portland State 96.9 (273) 1.07 24
6 Purdue 115.9 (7) 1.25 46
7 Xavier 113.1 (21) 1.14 46
8 Baylor 118.1 (2) 0.85 52
9 Kent State 105.7 (103) 0.97 32
10 Washington 102.4 (166) 0.86 36
11 Northern Illinois 95.9 (309) 1.00 35
12 Alabama 113.6 (17) 1.08 41
13 Montana 103.2 (146) 1.09 42
14 Eastern Oregon N/A 0.52 56
15 Pepperdine 102.6 (166) 1.04 44
16 San Francisco 105.0 (111) 1.10 63
17 Santa Clara 107 (82) 1.07 67
18 BYU 102.7 (177) 1.00 73
19 Portland 107 (106) 0.99 71
20 Loyola Marymount 107.7 (92) 1.03 69
21 Pacific 104.5 (172) 1.22 71
22 Portland 90

In general, the defensive issues that were apparent from the get-go—rim protection issues and dribble-drive penetration—have seemingly gotten worse as the season has progressed. For a defense of a team attempting to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, that is hardly the direction the coaches want it going.

Through seven games of conference play, the Zags’ defense has essentially played as average as possible. In three games, the defense was able to hold its opponents to slightly less points per possession than the opponent’s offensive rating suggests it is capable of. In three other games, the opponents’ offense had the edge. In one game, it was a tie. What has long be the tl;dr description of Gonzaga this season: If the Zags’ offense struggles in the slightest, the defense is not consistently capable of making a helpful impact.

Part of the issue is that there doesn’t appear to be much of a solution, because the team’s defense is just underwhelming at the moment. People will point to Drew Timme, but his offensive contributions outweigh any defensive shortcomings, similar to a player to be mentioned below. Anton Watson and Hunter Sallis are solid defenders, but they alone are not going to set an impenetrable wall on the perimeter.

When Mark Few went on Drew Timme’s podcast, he alluded to what might be the biggest issue facing this squad in fixing its defensive woes: a lack of communication.

In general, excluding a few players here and there, Gonzaga has not trotted out teams of incredibly lengthy guys who can cause fits solely based on athleticism. Historically, they have never forced a lot of steals. The Gonzaga defense is a team philosophy, and a team that does not communicate well is going to struggle to succeed on the defensive end.

Watching the games, that lack of communication is visible every time one of the perimeter defenders runs into a brick wall of a screen with zero notification. It is visible in the body language down low when the weak-side or help defense doesn’t come in time on drives to the hoop. Some of that comes down to defensive awareness, but a lack of communication will make most switches less seamless, more screens surprising, and sets up the stage for plenty of good shot opportunities for opponents.

In a way, it is fitting that this team is currently trotting out the worst defense since 2006, because the genetic makeup of this year’s squad team is similar to 2006. In 2006, the Zags were led by All-American Adam Morrison, a prolific scorer whose defensive strategy was simply to score more points. And it almost worked! Sure, the NCAA Tournament game that shall not be mentioned happened in the Sweet 16, but the 2006 Zags had the No. 2 ranked offense and the No. 174 ranked defense. They almost made the Elite Eight.

This year’s Gonzaga squad is an appropriate parallel. Even with all the doom and gloom of this article, the Zags are still 17-4 and looking at a good seed (currently No. 3) thanks to some quality wins in the non-conference slate. A gambling man probably wouldn’t bet this team to necessarily win each NCAA Tournament game. But a gambling man also wouldn’t bet against Timme, who is averaging 24.2 points per game since December.

That 2016 squad didn’t lose a single WCC game, but they came close more than enough times: a one-point win on the road against San Diego, a one-point win at home against Saint Mary’s, a three-point win over San Francisco to close out the regular season at home. Then the WCC Tournament: a four-point overtime win against San Diego and a one-point win against LMU in the championship.

As opposed to making season-long judgements based off of a 20 minute half in an exhibition against Tennessee, we have enough data on this season in which the only hope is Gonzaga’s defense improves. If it doesn’t, it is hardly the end of the world. The Zags will be just one of the next teams in a long line of teams with a stellar offense and a mediocre defense to enter the NCAA Tournament. It hardly means a guaranteed first round exit either. All it means is that each win will be harder and harder to come by.