PORTLAND – Portland men’s basketball coach Eric Reveno was watching tape of last month’s game against Gonzaga when a play caught his eye. Pilots center Kramer Knutson had worked for an opening inside and attempted a short, left-handed hook.
Knutson’s shot missed, in part because the 6-foot-9 sophomore had to account for the wing span of 7-5 Bulldog Will Foster.
“He makes that shot against most people,” Reveno said. “For years, since I was (an assistant) at Stanford, I have been a fan of Gonzaga’s defense with their length and the things they do to disrupt you.”
Gonzaga’s defense has perhaps never been better. The Bulldogs rank second nationally in field-goal percentage defense (36.2) and that figure dwindles to 33.9 percent in West Coast Conference games. Since 1959, when Gonzaga started playing a Division I schedule, its best field-goal percentage defense was 38.3 in 2004.
GU limited Portland, one of the more efficient offenses in the WCC and No. 64 out of 330 teams nationally in field-goal percentage at 46.3, to 32.7 percent in last month’s 67-50 win in Spokane. The 50 points were Portland’s second-lowest output of the season.
The rematch is tonight at the Chiles Center and one of the keys will center on Gonzaga’s ability to control the Pilots’ lethal perimeter shooting. T.J. Campbell leads the WCC in 3-point accuracy (52.2 percent), Jared Stohl is third at 46.2 and Ethan Niedermeyer is sixth at 40.8. In conference games, the Pilots make 47.3 percent of their 3s, nearly 10 percentage points higher than No. 2 Gonzaga (38.1).
Another key: Can the Bulldogs continue their success defending Portland wing Nik Raivio? The younger brother of ex-Zag Derek Raivio, who leads the team in scoring at 16.5 points, has made just 5 of 21 shots in two games against Gonzaga. He missed last year’s contest in Portland with a knee injury.
Long known for offense, Gonzaga’s defense has more than carried its weight this season. Only five opponents have shot better than 40 percent against GU. Four (Arizona, Utah, Connecticut and Portland State) came away winners. Saint Mary’s, which lost Patty Mills to an injury late in the first half, shot 41 percent and lost by seven.
“It’s something the coaches try to enforce and emphasize,” senior forward Josh Heytvelt said. “There was so much offensive talent when I first got here with Adam (Morrison), Derek (Raivio), J.P. (Batista) and Ronny (Turiaf), we could outscore teams instead of defend and play that way.”
Jerry Krause, in his eighth season as director of basketball operations, tracks Gonzaga’s defensive efficiency ratings (DER), which measures opponents’ points per possession. GU’s goal is 0.90, just less than a point per possession. The Bulldogs are at 0.90 for non-conference games, 0.85 in conference and 0.88 overall.
“We’ve never had that,” Krause said. “We’ve been hovering in the 1.0 to 1.05 range the past few years.”
Krause said the improvement reflects the emphasis of the coaching staff.
“What you teach is what you tend to get, what you measure is what you tend to get and the bottom line you demand is what you tend to get,” Krause said. “Our coaches have great strength offensively, but I think they’ve spent more of their teaching emphasis and they’re demanding more on defense than ever before.”
Lately, the Bulldogs have been switching on most screens, which can lead to mismatches, but they’ve been able to adjust.
“We have big guards that are versatile and can handle themselves in the post,” head coach Mark Few said. “For the most part our bigs have done a nice job of getting down in stances and guarding some people quicker than them.
“The team has also made sure that we’re just not switching out and everyone just guards a guy. We’ve done a good job of covering for each other if Josh is out there and covering a point, he’s not seeing a whole lot of floor to maybe try to take him. Conversely, if Steven (Gray) is guarding a big, we have help side and guys making sure we help him.”
Austin Daye, who is on pace to break the school’s single-season blocks record, and Micah Downs bring length, which often forces perimeter shooters and interior players to alter their shots.
Heytvelt has had a solid defensive season against conference rivals John Bryant, Omar Samhan and Gyno Pomare, as well as high-profile centers Hasheem Thabeet of Connecticut and Wayne Chism of Tennessee. Gonzaga awards a defensive player of the game and Heytvelt has won it the last three times. He’s blocked 21 shots, drawn a number of charges, and generally stayed out of foul trouble.
“People don’t know if he’s going to block the shot or take a charge when they come down the lane,” assistant coach Ray Giacoletti said. “That’s a heck of a combination.”
The Bulldogs barely trail Purdue in field-goal percentage defense. The Boilermakers are at 36.1 percent after allowing Ohio State to shoot 60.4 percent Tuesday.
“It’s interesting because individually some of them have limitations, but collectively they’ve really done a nice job,” Few said. “That (field-goal percentage) is far and away the biggest stat because points per game is predicated by how slow you play on offense. I couldn’t be happier with that.”
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