Tougher defense critical for Gonzaga

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LAST WEEK

Yep, the Zags put two more wins in the bag.

They did it a little bit backward, hammering BYU 93-63 up in Provo — a display that made neutrals wonder if there really is a better team in the country — and then came home to the raucous Kennel and struggled to put away scrappy San Diego.

But wins are wins, and perhaps you’ll recall that just 14 days ago it was suggested right here that the WCC regular-season race might be over in two weeks.

And so it is.

Gonzaga is now 8-0 in the conference, 21-2 overall and all that remains besides the WCC tournament is the struggle for NCAA seeding.

Meanwhile …

San Francisco traveled across the Bay Bridge and got rolled 86-80 by St. Mary’s, thus providing Gonzaga with at least a three-game cushion on the field.

Now even that tiny bit of pressure has been removed, and the hoops world knows that Gonzaga will win the conference again.

As they say in Britain: “Normal service has been resumed.”

Still, it was a slightly curious week.

The spotlight was on the trip to Provo, where BYU was 10-1 at home and had just defeated St. Mary’s.

The Zags were a 14-point favorite (almost a compliment to BYU), but then played like an NBA team putting on an exhibition.

“They feed off their crowd,” point guard Josh Perkins said. “We did our job and cut off their runs.”

Indeed.

Brandon Clarke came into the game leading the nation in field-goal percentage at 69 percent, then canned his first eight shots and 10 of 13 overall for 23 points.

Rui Hachimura added 20 as the Zags got pretty much any shot they wanted.

Gonzaga shot 58.7 percent from the floor, outrebounded BYU 41-31, outscored the Cougars 50-32 in the paint, 17-6 on fast-break opportunities and 14-4 on second-chance points.

SOMETIMES numbers can be deceiving.

Those were not, and the crowd of 15,376 at the Marriott Center was headed to the parking lots early.

Two nights later at The Kennel, however, the Zags looked entirely different — like a bunch of students struggling with a terribly hard chemistry test that might end badly.

Suffering what we’ll assume was a letdown after the excitement at BYU, the Zags found a seasoned, senior-leaden San Diego team waiting for them in Spokane.

And spoiling for a fight.

The Toreros simply would not go away in a game that surely jangled a few nerves.

The 85-69 final score wasn’t really indicative of how tough a test the Zags endured.

Thank goodness for Gonzaga that Hachimura and Zach Norvell Jr. didn’t miss the team bus.

Rui was simply the boss — scoring 32 points on his full variety of shots, grabbing critical rebounds, dunking lobs, blocking shots and simply owning the paint when needed.

“He earned everything he got,” Coach Mark Few said. “They are a tough team to score on. He understood he had to go through physicality and being body bumped to deliver.”

Norvell Jr., meanwhile, added that nice complement to the Zags’ inside game by hitting 5 of 7 from deep to finish with 21 points.

ALMOST ALL of these buckets were needed, though, as savvy San Diego displayed a pretty good arsenal of its own while ignoring the noise in The Kennel.

Potential NBA contributor Isaiah Pineiro, San Diego’s 6-foot-7, do-it-all forward, scored 30 points of his own — along with snaring 11 rebounds — and seemed to have an answer whenever the Zags tried to put the game away.

Isaiah Wright added 16 for the Toreros (15-8, 4-4), who were 10 of 23 from 3-point range.

It’s now no secret that the Zags’ sole mission is to run the table in the WCC, win the conference tournament and finish with just those two losses to Tennessee and North Carolina.

You might want to circle Feb. 16 on the calendar.

With all due respect to next opponent San Francisco, and St. Mary’s (whom the Zags still must face twice), Gonzaga’s trip to San Diego on the 16th would seem to be the roughest test remaining.

It was clear on Saturday night that the Toreros match up well with the Zags — and San Diego was missing star Olin Carter III, who averages 16 points per game and is expected to be back for the rematch.

The Zags have more talent than anyone in the conference, but there are a few places where they still might stumble, and San Diego qualifies.

It won’t be a walk in the park.

Or a visit to the San Diego Zoo.

THIS WEEK

The Zags finish a three-game homestand this week, and curiously enough, you could argue that the opponents involved might offer the conference’s three toughest tests.

Having finally disposed of San Diego in an uncomfortable scrap last week, Gonzaga now entertains San Francisco on Thursday night and St. Mary’s on Saturday.

Speaking of San Diego, Norvell Jr. observed: “We knew it was going to be a dogfight.”

True enough, since the Toreros — even without Olin Carter III — are an unflappable, veteran group with a surprising amount of talent.

Now comes a surprising question: Can we still say the same about San Francisco?

The Dons gave Gonzaga its toughest test of the conference season, losing 96-83 in San Francisco in a game that was far, far closer than the score might suggest.

That wild night at The Hilltop saw Norvell Jr. and Geno Crandall help the Zags escape by hitting back-to-back 3-balls with the score tied 81-81 and the crowd at fever pitch.

San Francisco, though, has had a difficult time on the road since then — losing close games at San Diego and St. Mary’s to essentially end the conference race, and probably take the Dons out of the NCAA picture (barring a triumph in the WCC conference tourney).

HAVING SAID all that, there’s a hint that San Francisco might offer the Zags a pretty stiff test in Spokane.

For one thing, Dons point guard and leader Frankie Ferraro is not the kind of guy who will let his guys quit.

San Francisco hasn’t been blown out by anyone in any venue this year, and the Dons will come to The Kennel with extra chips on their shoulders.

They’ll be remembering how the game back home ended, with Perkins throwing an in-your-face lob for Clarke to flush just ahead of the buzzer.

The Dons will have seen the tape of San Diego’s war in The Kennel, and perhaps assume that banging Gonzaga hard and often is the only way to slow the Zags’ usual momentum.

This game will be worth watching.

As for St. Mary’s, the Gaels have been a little bit of everything this year.

They’re 14-9 overall and 5-3 in the conference (one of three teams essentially tied for second), but they’ve been wildly erratic — losing at Pepperdine two days before toppling San Francisco at home.

There have been seasons when the Zags’ two bouts with St. Mary’s were certain to decide the conference champion.

This doesn’t appear to be one of them.

THE STORY

Few has been pleased with his team’s defense over the past several weeks.

His satisfaction is legitimate, as the Zags have hunkered down to get needed stops that were harder to come by earlier in the season.

When things seemed to be getting shaky against San Diego, Gonzaga was at its best on the defensive end — forcing turnovers and denying star Isaiah Pineiro the same easy looks he had been getting, particularly in the first half.

“We made plays defensively,” Few said. “We got some critical stops multiple times in a row, which we call kills.”

Gonzaga’s defense is going to stay in the spotlight, but not necessarily because of surviving San Diego or winning the WCC.

The goal is March and the Final Four, and the Zags need to tighten up considerably if they’re going to make that really deep run.

AT THE moment, Gonzaga has just crept under No. 50 in the country, according to the metrics of hoops guru Ken Pomeroy.

And here’s a sobering statistic: Of the last 11 national champions, none has had a defense ranked lower than No. 18 in the KenPom numbers.

The Zags appear to be buckling down now, but obviously, putting the squeeze on WCC competition isn’t the same as stopping truly elite teams.

Pomeroy points to offensive rebounds and an inability to force turnovers as Gonzaga’s potential problems — noting that the Zags are one of the nation’s best at defending 2-point shot attempts.

But look back at those two losses …

Tennessee grabbed 16 offensive rebounds. North Carolina got 14 and outscored the Zags 27-0 on second-chance points — a number that almost boggles the mind.

Quick flashback: When Gonzaga made it to the national title game two years ago, the Zags were ranked No. 1 defensively in the KenPom metrics.

Can these Zags tighten up enough, and clean up those shaky areas, to give themselves a real shot at winning it all?

POMEROY thinks it’s possible, especially since the Zags have the comfort of leading the nation in scoring at 91.2 points per game.

That’s always going to allow you some breathing room.

Then there’s the return of 6-foot-10 Killian Tillie to help around the rim — an absence that was felt keenly against Tennessee and UNC.

Also, as Pomeroy points out, you can be a so-so team statistically on defense, and still turn the screws in the NCAA tournament.

Pomeroy compares Gonzaga’s defense to Duke’s in 2015, when the Blue Devils entered the NCAA tournament ranked 57th in defensive efficiency.

After winning six games en route to the championship, they shot to No. 11.

But …

“That’s really the thing for Gonzaga,” Pomeroy said in an interview with the Athletic. “In order to win the national title, you need to have really good offense and really good defense in the NCAA tournament — and if they are the 50th-best defense, you can probably turn it on.

“But if you are the 30th-best defense, the 20th-best defense, then you know. Their upsides are really, really good.”

That’s exactly what Few is preaching, and what Perkins was stressing.

Exactly how Tillie is fitting in, and what he means to the Gonzaga defense down the road is a tale for another day.

For now, it’s best to sum it up in one word … or maybe few words …

Critical.

In flashing red lights.

• • •

Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press. He’s a former sports writer with the Denver Post and Kansas City Star and the author of 13 sports books. He’s hosted radio programs specifically on college basketball. Email: scameron@cdapress.com

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