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Gonzaga ready to attack to counter Syracuse zone

Gonzaga guard Eric McClellan is key to successful outcome against Syracuse. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga guard Eric McClellan is key to successful outcome against Syracuse. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

CHICAGO – The task is completely different, but the mindset needs to be the same.

On Gonzaga’s first possession last Saturday, Eric McClellan penetrated the lane and challenged Utah standout center Jakob Poeltl. McClellan’s shot didn’t fall, but Domantas Sabonis hit a put-back.

On GU’s next possession, Josh Perkins drove inside and tried a floater that the talented Poeltl soared to block. After the game, beaming assistant coach Brian Michaelson said it was precisely the aggressive approach coaches wanted to see.

The staff hopes to see more of the same Friday when 11th-seeded Gonzaga (28-7) takes on No. 10 seed Syracuse (21-13) at the United Center with an Elite Eight berth on the line.

“Things like that send messages early, and recently we’ve done a great job executing it,” freshman point guard Josh Perkins said. “Syracuse is going to come out with a zone (defense), we know it, but early we’re going to be aggressive and attack it and let them know we’re prepared for it.”

Gonzaga understands that will require some variety.

“We’ve probably played less than 30 possessions against zone this year, mostly because teams fear (Kyle) Wiltjer so much,” coach Mark Few said. “Obviously we attack everything inside-out and we’ll continue to work inside-out. That’s kind of who we are. It’s just going to come at different places and in different contexts.

“A big key is we don’t just settle for tons of 3s, but we get our paint touches or the ball into the paint off a pass or the bounce.”

Syracuse limits foes to 64.8 points, 40.7-percent shooting and 30.4-percent beyond the arc. Gonzaga on average scores 79.4 points, makes nearly 49 percent from the field and 38 percent of its 3s.

“The keys are to be able to attack it multiple ways,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “Syracuse plays zone every possession so they’ve seen it all. Zone attacks tend to be more simple than man so we have to vary their looks.

“We have to force them to make decisions they’re not comfortable making, whether it’s how they’re going to guard the high post if Wiltjer is having success, or how to guard the low post if Domas is having success. And our guards have to catch the ball ready and understand there are shot opportunities to be had.”

The message appears to be getting through.

“Just being aggressive and not being tentative,” said Sabonis, who is averaging 20 points and 13 rebounds in two tournament wins. “Coach (Few) said the guards are going to have to let it rip, be confident and step up and make shots.”

Syracuse’s zone is only half the challenge. Gonzaga must contend with a Syracuse offense that relies on perimeter players to score. Senior guards Michael Gbinije (17.8 points) and Trevor Cooney (12.8) and talented freshman wing Malachi Richardson (13.1) have combined for 15 3-pointers in two tournament wins.

Freshman forward Tyler Lydon, who comes off the bench but plays starter minutes, has had a pair of 14-point tournament games.

“Gbinije has length, size, a really good catch-and-shoot guy and he can get in the lane,” said McClellan, likely the Zags’ first option defensively on Gbinije. “This time of year you’re going to see pretty good teams and pretty good players at all five positions. We’re all going to have to be locked in.”

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said his team will be tested at both ends of the floor.

“They’re a tremendous offensive team, that’s what you see first when you watch them,” he said. “But I think their defense has gotten better. That’s why they’re here. That’s why they’ve had a tremendous tournament so far.”

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