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Blanchette: Gonzaga makes noise with ‘dive-bombing’ defense

In their latest narrow escape over Portland the other night, the Gonzaga Bulldogs sliced themselves a wedge of basketball as absorbing as any dunk-3-pointer-dunk sequence cluttering up SportsCenter.

It came in the game’s early stages, the score tied at 5. The Zags had been unable to corral a missed Pilots free throw before it bounced out of bounds, so the visitors had a second chance to take the lead again.

What followed on that end of the floor shared the brutally efficient design of a straightjacket. First, the Pilots were forced to end-of-shot-clock hopers on their next two possessions.

Then came a blocked shot. Another force in traffic. A strip steal by Kevin Pangos as he strayed over to help David Stockton on a double team.

Following the application of a Band-Aid basket, the Pilots then turned the ball over four times in five trips down the floor, including press-coverage steals by Kyle Dranginis and Drew Barham. At which point the score was 29-8, Zags. That would have been that, except that the Pilots had one advantage on the home team: understanding that basketball games are 40 minutes long.

Nonetheless, it illustrated a fun aspect of these Zags, and one that can balance out other shortcomings.

“They just dive-bomb the ball,” offered San Diego coach Bill Grier during an earlier visit to McCarthey Athletic Center.

Which, in fact, is the technical term the Zags use.

Likely the biggest test of GU’s defensive chops will come Saturday, when the Zags make take their annual, or nearly, stab at NCAA resume pot-building and play at 24th-ranked Memphis.

However that plays out, it’s possible that on defense, Gonzaga is fielding its most disruptive team in what we’ll call the Zagmania era.

No, these Zags don’t have the most steals, and they haven’t compiled the stingiest field-goal percentage defense numbers, and they certainly aren’t the most ferocious rebounders. And, yeah, the first time around against Portland they got shot up like a “No Trespassing” sign on a backwoods gate.

But they also lead the West Coast Conference in scoring defense by a whopping seven points a game – and not by massaging the tempo with molasses.

And by one well-regarded metric – Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency, measuring points allowed per 100 possessions – the Zags are 35th in the nation, up a couple of notches even from last season’s team.

“Losing Mike Hart, maybe you think they wouldn’t be as good defensively,” Grier said, “but in some ways they’ve been better.

“When you put it on the floor and drive and they’ve got a guy in ‘help,’ that guy comes hard. You watch team after team after team turn the ball over when they try to put it on the floor against them.”

Fittingly, this attribute began with a steal.

“My first vivid imagery of it was watching that Butler team make its first run to the NCAA final game,” said Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd. “Anytime somebody drove the ball into a gap of their defense, it was full combat – the help defender was coming over, not with one hand but with two and just raking the ball.”

As Portland coach Eric Reveno noted about that first-half flurry, “They were kind of just taking it from us and we’re hoping for a foul.”

The pack-line defensive concept – popularized by the family Bennett at Washington State a decade ago but just lately evolving into the gluten-free diet of college basketball – puts a premium on recovering to defend the 3-pointer, and Lloyd allowed that, “If you go for the ball (on a drive) and miss and they kick it out, it’s the easiest 3 in the game.”

And easy 3s are a sensitive subject at GU.

“I know everybody says, ‘Gonzaga doesn’t guard the 3,’ ” Lloyd said. “But that’s a bit of a misnomer. In the past, maybe you could say that. The last few years, we’ve guarded it on a par with everybody. But there’s always been some anomaly games – and there’s always going to be some.”

And for the Zags, they’ve often been high-profile games – like last year’s NCAA loss to Wichita State, which hit 14 of 28 from 3, despite being a 30-percent shooting team averaging just five makes a game.

“We took away what they did best – drive and rebound,” Lloyd said, “and they beat us that way.”

It’s curious that the Zags have seemed to attack drivers even harder in the year the NCAA picked to batten down with “freedom of movement” calls – curtailing hand-checking on the perimeter and charges underneath. Some of that has been the presence – and progress – of 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski.

“The last few years, that last line of help has been a charge,” Lloyd said. “They’ve taken that out of the game, so the deal now has to be having somebody who can protect the rim.”

And the deal this weekend is taking it on the road against a high-profile opponent. These midwinter out-of-WCC games haven’t treated the Zags well of late – they’ve lost five of their last six.

Which makes a good time for a different kind of anomaly.

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