Monday, April 12, 2021
43.0°F

For Zags, NCAA title run comes down to defense

by STEVE CAMERON / Zags Tracker
| February 16, 2021 1:00 AM

We’re going to look ahead today.

I know, I know.

Mark Few might scold us for getting away from his “one game at a time” mantra, but you and I don’t need to be locked in against Saint Mary’s.

The players do.

So, we’re free to make the obvious jump a few weeks to the NCAA tournament – and feel like there’s a pretty decent chance that the Zags will enter that dance as a No. 1 seed.

Sure, they could get upset somewhere in this last batch of conference games (almost all of which are at home), or start daydreaming and get rolled in the WCC tourney.

Assuming they even participate in it – which is not a cinch at all.

I KIND of hope the Zags use their clout in the conference to skip that event, for two reasons…

First, so they can be extra careful in avoiding any COVID exposure before departing for Indianapolis and the NCAA jamboree.

Second, so that the WCC might have a shot at three teams in the Big Dance – an actual possibility if BYU were to get upset.

Any third team could bring a little spare change to the conference coffers.

At any rate, let’s get back to our issue of the day.

IT IS gospel that No. 1-ranked teams rarely win the NCAA tournament.

The problem is not that we keep picking the wrong top seeds.

No …

The issue is that choosing ANY one team in a field of 68 – especially with so much balance among the better teams in college hoops – is just so mathematically difficult.

The obvious question, then, is what could help this clearly terrific Gonzaga team reach the mountaintop.

I’ve written previously – and will continue to preach – that the Zags will NOT get upset because their offense isn’t firing on a given night.

Just look at how various ranked teams have gotten mauled by this Gonzaga scoring machine.

Kansas, Iowa, Virginia.

They all were mauled by Few’s basketball threshing machine.

Only one non-conference opponent, West Virginia, has given the Zags any kind of fight.

I believe Gonzaga fell behind in that game because the whole gang suffered several minutes of shock when Jalen Suggs hit the floor, howling in agony.

It looked for all the world as though Suggs had torn his Achilles tendon, and the rest of the guys were basically sleepwalking through the rest of the first half.

AS WE know now, Suggs’ problem turned out to be his ankle.

He even returned to play most of the second half as the Zags wiped out a deficit and took down the Mountaineers, 87-82.

Amazingly, Gonzaga’s other 19 victories have all been by double digits.

That’s dominance.

These non-conference victims – four of whom are ranked in the latest AP poll – suffer after being fooled by their own eyes.

Take Virginia, a team built on defense and now cruising toward a title in the difficult ACC.

No doubt the Cavs watched plenty of Gonzaga tape, and were warned that the Zags would be whiplash-fast in getting the ball up-court, and …

That the Zags could score quickly and relentlessly – even in their half-court sets.

The Cavs no doubt THOUGHT they knew what was coming.

But seeing the Zags on tape is not the same as facing them in the flesh.

In game situations, it all happens much, much faster – and so far, opponents have been stunned and overwhelmed by it.

I THINK the same thing will happen in the NCAA tournament.

Teams trying to run with the Zags, and somehow outscore them, will get torched.

Bottom line: Gonzaga’s fate in this quest for a national championship will come down to defense.

And now the Zags seem to have developed a taste for it.

They’ve leaped all the way to No. 4 nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency.

Part of the improvement has come from the guards – with Suggs taking fewer chances and playing straight-up defense, while Aaron Cook (the team’s best backcourt defender) is getting more and more opportunities to shut down an opponent’s star guard.

Then there is the massive improvement around the basket, as Drew Timme clearly has embraced the challenge of handling interior defense without getting into foul trouble.

IT’S HARD to overstate how important Timme’s defense will be during the NCAA tournament.

Happily, the sophomore scoring wizard seems to have gotten a feel for locking people down.

After Timme’s outburst against San Francisco over the weekend, Few didn’t bother mentioning what we all could see -- that Drew was unstoppable on offense.

No, the conversation was all about the other end, even to issues like communication and Timme’s obvious improvement at things like “showing” against ball screens (jumping out to prevent quick shots or passes, then getting back quickly to avoid allowing an open space near the basket).

That kind of stuff is hard work, and it’s not glamorous.

But it wins basketball games.

“He’s always been able to score the ball,” Few said.

“The thing I’m proud of is that he’s really defending much better. I could feel his presence out there. He was talking and communicating.

“We were switching him onto some really talented guards in (Khalil) Shabazz and (Jamaree) Bouyea, and he was fine.

“That’s a great sign for us moving forward.”

Indeed, it is.

Running the table from Day One to cutting down the nets at the NCAA tournament is such an incredibly tough task.

No matter what, it will be difficult.

With such dramatic defensive improvement, though, Gonzaga is getting closer and closer to having almost every answer.

Closer and closer.

Email: scameron@cdapress.com

Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.

Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball which is published each Tuesday.