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Zags succeed being defensive

Improvement helps GU fashion 8-game streak

The statistics suggest this is one of Gonzaga’s better defensive teams. The Bulldogs certainly pass the eyeball test.

The Bulldogs are riding an eight-game winning streak, fueled by an efficient, balanced offense and an improving defense. They’ve held seven of their last eight opponents to 61 points or less and only Air Force (52.4 percent) made more than 43 percent of its shots.

Gonzaga’s rankings aren’t overly impressive: 62nd nationally in scoring defense (61.9 ppg), 105th in field-goal percentage defense (41.1) and 115th in 3-point percentage defense (32.5). But numbers don’t always tell the entire story.

Take Gonzaga’s 2009 team, which set the school record for field-goal percentage defense (37.8) since the program started playing a Division I schedule in 1959. Those Bulldogs gave up 63 points per game (53rd) and opponents made 35 percent beyond the 3-point arc (226th). The 2004 Zags limited opponents to 38.3-percent shooting but allowed 66.2 points, No. 102 nationally.

“I’m not big on these proclamations, but we’re starting to develop a trend here where I think we’re defending pretty darn well,” Zags coach Mark Few said.

Gonzaga’s defense will be tested thoroughly by Saint Mary’s in a WCC first-place showdown Thursday. The Bulldogs (13-2), who moved up to No. 21 in the Associated Press Top 25 and cracked the ESPN/USA Today rankings at No. 23, encounter a Gaels’ squad that puts up 76.2 points per game, paced by WCC Player of the Week Rob Jones (15.2 ppg) and Matthew Dellavedova (14.4 ppg, 6.6 assists).

There are a number of factors for Gonzaga’s defensive improvement after a spotty start. In its first three games, GU gave up 13 3-pointers to Eastern Washington, nine to Washington State and seven to Hawaii. Those three opponents made 46 percent from long distance. Gonzaga has limited its last 12 opponents to 28.2 percent on 3s.

Returning players, including Elias Harris, Sam Dower and David Stockton, have improved since last year and newcomers such as Gary Bell Jr., Kevin Pangos and Guy Landry Edi are solid defenders. Mike Hart earned a starting role, in part because of his work at the defensive end. Robert Sacre is considered one of the nation’s better post defenders.

“No question,” responded Sacre, when asked if this is the best defensive team in his five years at GU. “Guys are buying in and they know if we want to go somewhere we have to play defense.”

Gonzaga has been stingy in three WCC wins, admittedly against teams that rank in the bottom tier in offensive production. Portland, Pepperdine and Santa Clara combined to shoot 32.4 percent, 26 percent on 3s and were held to an average of 52 points.

Director of basketball operations Jerry Krause charts Gonzaga’s offensive and defensive efficiency via points per possession. The goal offensively is 1.15 points per possession and GU is at 1.18 in three WCC games. The goal defensively is 0.90 and Gonzaga checks in at 0.78. Krause called it the best three-game defensive stretch in conference in his 11 seasons at the school.

“I like to think we’re a good listening crew and we take what the coaches tell us and implement it in games,” said Hart, who leads Gonzaga in pass deflections (one every 3 minutes), followed by Harris (3.14) and Bell (3.89). “In games we didn’t win, we didn’t do a good job of taking the scouting report to the game.”

Bell has been outstanding defensively. Sacre has swatted 22 shots as the last line of defense. GU outrebounds foes by 7 per game, which limits second-chance opportunities. Gonzaga generally takes care of the ball (12.9 turnovers per game), which helps curb transition points.

The Bulldogs rarely play zone defense.

“Quite frankly,” Few said, “our man has been pretty good.”