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Monday, September 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Blanchette: Don’t look now, but Zags are crazy-good defenders

Gonzaga’s defense against Seton Hall and then against Utah was nothing less than spectacular. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga’s defense against Seton Hall and then against Utah was nothing less than spectacular. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

CHICAGO – Yeah, yeah, the Syracuse zone. So what else is new?

Look, it’s great. It’s unique to college basketball. No one plays it so much or so well (maybe because no one plays it so much?). It’s where any conversation about – and game plan for – the Orange begins.

It’s a damned brand.

But it’s not where the conversation necessarily ends.

So let’s talk about Gonzaga’s defense. It’s time someone should.

In the wake of the Bulldogs’ blitz through the Denver pod of the NCAA Basketball Tournament last weekend, the huzzahs were mostly about Domantas Sabonis’ KO of NBA Lottery-bound center Jakob Poeltl, the dazzle of guard Eric McClellan and, of course, the resurrection of a Gonzaga season once being fitted for a funeral suit.

Here’s what may have been overlooked: the Zags held Seton Hall and Utah under 60 points in back-to-back games, something that had happened in Gonzaga’s NCAA history exactly never.

In fact, in GU’s previous 40 tournament outings, only three times had an opponent failed to break 60 – a 16 seed (Southern, 2013), a 15 (Valparaiso, 2004) and the most offensively challenged 10 (West Virginia, 2012) in NCAA history.

And, OK, it wasn’t going completely unnoticed.

“I got some texts from ex-players saying they think that’s the best a Gonzaga team has guarded,” said Zags assistant coach Brian Michaelson.

Tough crowd, those guys.

And those weren’t two slowdown rummies the Zags played, either. Both were Top 25 teams, both with mid-70s scoring averages.

In each case, however, the Gonzaga staff plotted and the players carried out a pretty specific plan, and their opponents chipped in with flummoxed swoons. In the opener, the Zags focused their attentions on mercurial Seton Hall guard Isaiah Whitehead whose predilection to keep shooting – with his coach’s blessing and to a 4-of-24 end – effectively transformed his teammates into spectators and not solutions. Against Utah, Sabonis and conspirators threw a straitjacket on Poeltl and 3-point specialist Jordan Loveridge and the Utes had no other answers. One frantic second-half sequence typified Utah’s frustrations – and it began with 6-10 Kyle Wiltjer hounding a jitterbug guard a foot shorter and ended with Sabonis blocking Poeltl’s hurried jumper at the shot clock.

But it’s hardly out of what’s become the norm for the Bulldogs.

Syracuse’s vaunted zone is 22nd in the country in the adjusted defensive algebra concocted by metrics guru Ken Pomeroy and the go-to resource for coaching staffs in search of statistical validation of concepts and performance.

Know who’s 23rd? The Zags.

In fact, in the past five seasons Gonzaga’s average in those rankings is 29. Making it more remarkable this year is 7-foot-1 shot adjuster Przemek Karnowski watching from the bench in his smooth threads after being felled by a back injury.

“To be able to defend at the level we are now without him is really showing me something,” said assistant coach Tommy Lloyd.

“People who play against us say that our length and athleticism really bother them. Coaching at Gonzaga so long, I don’t ever factor that in. I always feel we’re undermatched compared to a lot of our opponents – we’re going to beat you with scouting, a plan and execution. But there’s something to be said for it. Obviously, Eric and Silas (Melson) are very quick-footed guys, and Kyle (Dranginis) has great length and anticipation. Josh Perkins is a capable guy and getting better.”

So, too, have the inside guys – even Wiltjer, whose defensive liabilities have been chopped down to size of late simply by being willing.

“It’s growth,” said Melson. “Domas is an elite rim protector now. Eight months ago you couldn’t have said that. It’s improvements we’ve all made, and a process you have to respect.”

It’s not electrifying defensive plays that define the Zags – they’re in the lower half nationally in steals and blocks. But they rank fifth in defensive rebounding and 3-point defense – opponents shooting just 29.8 percent, a stunning development to Gonzaga devotees who have saved their greatest despair over the years for that perceived shortcoming.

“It’s something we’ve honed in on,” coach Mark Few acknowledged. “But there’s just so much more to it than guarding the 3 line. You have to be in help position, slow down penetration and make the recovery to the shooter shorter. People might want us to face-guard everybody – and you might not give up a 3, but you’ll lose by 20.”

Each NCAA round brings a sterner test, of course. You’re only as good as your last stop.

But while these Zags have changed the narrative for themselves in the space of a month, they’ve altered a reputation at the same time.

“What (Few’s) done defensively with this team is remarkable,” said ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, the former Virginia Tech coach. “When I think of Gonzaga, I think of scoring. When I think of this team, I think of an elite defensive team.”

Not yet a brand, but damned good.

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