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Defense should play huge role when Gonzaga clashes with Utah

Gonzaga coach Mark Few responds to a question during a news conference as the team prepares for a second-round men’s college basketball game Friday, March 18, 2016, in the NCAA tournament in Denver. Gonzaga is scheduled to play Utah on Saturday. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)
Gonzaga coach Mark Few responds to a question during a news conference as the team prepares for a second-round men’s college basketball game Friday, March 18, 2016, in the NCAA tournament in Denver. Gonzaga is scheduled to play Utah on Saturday. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

DENVER – Questions were lobbied by numerous media outlets at players and coaches from Gonzaga and Utah.

The majority of those questions centered on Domantas Sabonis and/or Jakob Poeltl.

But it wasn’t just the media that was inquisitive about the old-school matchup of standout big men that headlines Saturday’s Zags-Utes showdown in the NCAA tournament second round at the Pepsi Center.

“Well, I’m really curious,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “I’m just like you. It’s really hard to predict, but that’s certainly a storyline that’s going to have a lot to do with the outcome. How they guard (Poeltl), how we guard Sabonis.”

No. 11-seeded Gonzaga (27-7) and No. 3 Utah (27-8) don’t hide their inside-outside approaches.

“It’s interesting,” Zags coach Mark Few said. “I think the teams are eerily similar. We love to run a lot of different sets and actions to get our bigs the ball. But then the other players are very capable of making plays and they’re critical to each of our teams’ success.

“They are a difficult one-day prep.”

Both teams went against convention and won by double digits in the opening round despite committing 20 turnovers. Utah also committed 20 turnovers in the Pac-12 tournament title game.

Those figures have been brought up a time or two to the players.

“Turnovers make or break you,” said GU senior guard Eric McClellan, who committed five turnovers against Seton Hall. “We’re going to have to clean that up, be stronger with the ball. Mine came from guys reaching in and poking at the ball.”

Freshman point guard Josh Perkins, playing in his first NCAA tournament game in his hometown, rebounded from a tough stretch in which he committed three turnovers and missed all three of his first-half field-goal attempts. He had seven points, four assists, three steals and just one turnover in the second half.

“It was a little shaky in the beginning just figuring out the tempo and what shots we were going to get,” Perkins said. “We figured it our really fast and it showed in the score.”

Krystkowiak has installed drills with six players defending five or two defenders working against a single guard.

“Like our coaches always say, ‘See the pass before you make the pass,’ ” Utes point guard Brandon Taylor said. “If we want to continue to move on in this tournament we have to control our pace and take care of the ball.”

Defense is one of the main reasons the Zags moved into the round of 32. They limited Seton Hall to a season-low 52 points and star point guard Isaiah Whitehead managed just 10 points on 4-of-24 shooting.

“It’s what helps us win games, what helped us turn the corner,” senior forward Kyle Wiltjer said.

Gonzaga’s defense has been solid for a while. In its last 15 games, 13 opponents failed to reach 70 points. Saint Mary’s is the only team to shoot 50 percent against the Zags this season, hitting that exact figure in a home win in January.

In the Zags’ 27 wins, opponents made just 38.4 percent from the field, 28.4 percent beyond the arc. Nine of the last 15 foes were held to less than 32 percent on their 3-pointers.

“Just a new sense of pride with our team,” senior guard Kyle Dranginis said. “We realize that it doesn’t have to be one-on-one matchups. We can guard players as a team and help each other out and I think we finally figured that out.”

Along with an improving defense, GU’s once-maligned back court has emerged as playmakers and consistent contributors to supplement Wiltjer and Sabonis, who average 38 points and 18 rebounds per game. Utah’s guards are overshadowed by the publicity directed at Poeltl, a probable top 10 pick if he declares for the NBA draft, but Taylor, Lorenzo Bonam and wing Jordan Loveridge are capable of game-changing plays.

“We are both underrated,” Perkins said, “but that gives you a reason to play hard and with a chip on your shoulder.”

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