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Gonzaga’s focus against St. John’s centers on 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, the trapping, turnover-inducing defense of the St. John’s Red Storm in an intriguing NCAA tournament matchup at the Pepsi Center tonight at approximately 6:45 PST.

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 GU commit 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 want 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. Its 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, but you have to have some luck because they got cold coming down the backstretch,” he said.

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 anterior cruciate ligament in the Big East tournament.

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,” said 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.”

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