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Zags expect to find St. John’s in a zone

DENVER – Gonzaga has experience against some of college basketball’s most heralded zone defenses: Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 in last year’s NCAA tournament, Baylor’s extended 1-1-3 in December.

The Bulldogs will go against another highly regarded zone, St. John’s trapping, turnover-inducing defense in an intriguing NCAA tournament matchup at the Pepsi Center Thursday night at approximately 6:45 PST.

And that’s why 11th-seeded Gonzaga (24-9) on Wednesday watched videotape of the GU-Arizona game from 2009. It wasn’t to relive a pleasant memory. The Bulldogs, rolling along at 7-0 and ranked No.4, struggled against then-Wildcats’ assistant coach Mike Dunlap’s zone defense in the second half of a 69-64 loss.

Dunlap, now an assistant under St. John’s first-year head coach Steve Lavin, has implemented the defense with Lavin’s consent.

“We were settling for outside jump shots, which can go really well or really poorly,” said senior Steven Gray, who played 29 minutes in the 2009 contest that saw Jeremy Pargo commit seven of GU’s 14 turnovers. “Our inside game has changed so much from Josh (Heytvelt), who was perimeter oriented, to Rob (Sacre), who really bangs inside.

“The coaches have really stressed that’s going to be key, for me and ‘Meech’ (Demetri Goodson) to give a look inside for someone sealing and not just settling for the first 3. Something else might open up with a few more passes or a punch (drive) here or there.”

The Red Storm wants to force turnovers or quick shots. Those lead to fast-break opportunities or run-outs, offense generated by their defense. It quickens the pace, which suits their athletic roster.

Sixth-seeded St. John’s (21-11) averages eight steals per game, 38th in the nation, and forces 16.1 turnovers. Their plus-3.7 turnover margin ranks 13th nationally.

“We kind of force teams into shooting 3s,” Red Storm senior guard Dwight Hardy said. “We don’t want the ball getting into the paint. Our zone is kind of weird because we’re all over the place. The reason we’re successful is, off the misses, 1 through 4 anybody can bring the ball up.”

Dunlap smiles at the mention of the Arizona game.

“We threw that at them,” he said, “but you have to have some luck because they got cold coming down the backstretch.”

The defense stresses “disruption,” Dunlap said. “It’s no secret we press for 40 minutes and we’re very aggressive. There are liabilities, too, but for us it made sense because we have fine athletes. If we didn’t have this length, we would have to adjust our system.”

The Red Storm will be without senior wing D.J. Kennedy, who tore his ACL in the Big East tournament. Even without Kennedy for the final 35 minutes, St. John’s gave Syracuse all it could handle before falling 79-73. St. John’s attempted to take 10 charging fouls, though some weren’t successful.

Gonzaga has functioned fairly well against zones most of the season, head coach Mark Few said, but St. John’s presents a unique challenge. Execution and taking care of the ball will determine GU’s success, he said.

“They try to put all their defenders on one side and shrink the floor,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, who compiled Gonzaga’s scouting report on St. John’s. “They’ll compress, but it’s a morphing zone. It’s not the same thing every time, they’ll adjust it one possession to the next.”

If Gonzaga can operate offensively, it will make its defensive responsibilities much easier. In the three games prior to Kennedy’s injury, St. John’s outscored opponents by 11, eight and seven in points off turnovers.

In the open court or half court, Hardy spurs St. John’s offense. He averaged 23.3 points in St. John’s six wins over ranked opponents, including 33-point efforts against Villanova and Connecticut, and 26 versus Duke.

“He’s a guy that looks to score almost every time he touches the ball,” Goodson said. “He’s really quick coming off those ball screens and once he gets a step he’s at the rim. If he drives, hopefully he runs into a couple of bodies. You just want every shot he takes to be a tough one.”