Through its first nine games, two topics seem invariably linked to the Gonzaga men’s basketball team: its meat-grinder schedule and 3-point defense.
The Bulldogs obviously can’t do anything about the schedule at this point, but they hope to do a better job defending the 3-point arc. The schedule softens a bit during Finals Week with Lewis-Clark State College (7-2) visiting GU at the McCarthey Athletic Center Thursday night.
Gonzaga (4-5) has faced and lost to four ranked opponents with a combined record of 39-3. The Bulldogs’ fifth loss was to Washington State, which is receiving votes in both polls. Add in WSU’s 7-1 mark, and the combined record is 46-4.
“Oh yeah,” said junior guard Demetri Goodson, when asked if this has been the toughest non-conference slate in his three seasons at Gonzaga. “My freshman year we had (Jeremy) Pargo and (Josh) Heytvelt and a lot of seniors and juniors, and that definitely helped out. This year we have a lot of young players. We’re still learning, trying to get better and play within the team.”
Gonzaga tangles with No. 9 Baylor (7-0) in Dallas on Saturday. By this weekend, GU will have faced Nos. 6, 9, 11, 12 and 24 in the current AP rankings.
“It’s nice to have a game at home (tonight), it’s nice to have a game not against a top 10, top 20 opponent,” head coach Mark Few said. “Nobody in college basketball has played a schedule even close to ours right now. I think our players need to understand that, our coaches do and our fans do, bottom line.”
The surprise addition in late July of San Diego State as a preliminary round matchup of the CBE Classic dialed up the difficulty level. Few said the event promoter is a personal friend, but “it wasn’t what we signed up for.”
Gonzaga’s toughest non-conference schedule was arguably in 2006-07 when it went 4-3 against seven ranked teams. It was three last season – vs. No. 2 Michigan State, No. 7 Duke (eventual national champion) and No. 4 Syracuse. It was six in ‘09 and five in ’08 (two vs. Saint Mary’s).
Using the current rankings, Gonzaga will face six ranked opponents with Baylor and No. 18 Memphis in February remaining. That could change: Saint Mary’s is receiving votes, Xavier is 6-2 and Oklahoma State is 9-1 with an RPI of 31.
“It’s important (to get a breakthrough),” center Rob Sacre said. “It’s a huge step for us being successful later on.”
Gonzaga has dropped nine straight, including four this season, to ranked opponents. The Zags’ last win over a ranked foe came against Saint Mary’s in Jan., 2009.
“We just need to continue to keep improving,” Few said. “The biggest thing is we can’t let this schedule or the perceived falloff from the expectations affect their psyche, and that’s a challenge.”
About that 3-point line
In Gonzaga’s three-game losing streak, Illinois, Washington State and Notre Dame have combined to make 34 of 63 3s. Overall, opponents are hitting 40.1 percent with five teams connecting on double-digit 3s against the Bulldogs.
“It just feels like every game this year teams have been shooting great from 3 against us,” Goodson said. “We talk about it in practice, but we can only talk so much. We have to do it.”
The 40.1 percent represents the high-water mark against Few-coached teams the previous 11 seasons. The highest percentage during that span was 36.9 in 2003. The next highest was 35.4 in ’05. If you’re expecting those 3-point percentages will drop when Gonzaga is in WCC play, think again. WCC teams have posted slightly higher 3-point percentages against GU than its non-conference foes each of the last four seasons.
Notre Dame, much like WSU and Illinois, had forwards/posts that could operate on the perimeter.
“There wasn’t an ounce of selfishness and they can shoot from all five spots,” Few said. “So it’s ‘Alright, everybody get out and guard the 3.’ But if you’re going to guard the 3 then you’re going to give up drives. And they had a really effective post player that we did a great job on and we did a wonderful job on (guard Ben) Hansbrough. As (luck) would have it, guys who haven’t shot it great from 3 shot it well. Now, we didn’t guard it obviously but they made them.”
Forward Carleton Scott, a 29.5 percent 3-point shooter on the season, made 3 of 5. Tim Abromaitis, a 33.3 percent shooter, was 4 of 6. Scott Martin (26.9 percent) made 2 of 3. There are other examples. Illinois’ Mike Tisdale, just 2 of 7 entering the game, drained 3 of 5 3s vs. Gonzaga. San Diego State’s Billy White was 2 of 2 from distance against Gonzaga. He’s 1 of 5 in SDSU’s other 10 games.
Few acknowledged 3-point defense “is a deficiency we have to get better at, and it’s borne out of many difference facets. Against Notre Dame it was thinking we were helping on the post but we weren’t helping on the post, and there were kick-outs. We chart all these things; we clip them and show them.”