Mark Few isn’t a big fan of comparisons involving his current and past Gonzaga teams. He really doesn’t care for sweeping generalizations, particularly early-season ones.
But it was inevitable Gonzaga’s coach would be asked if this was his best defensive team minutes after the Zags limited Saint Mary’s, one of the nation’s most efficient offenses, to 56 points on 37 percent shooting in Tuesday’s WCC tournament championship game.
“It’s hard to just throw out best when you’ve been doing it 20 years,” Few began.
He went on to call the Zags an “excellent defensive team,” describing their elite rim protection, bigger play-making guards and ability to follow scouting reports and make in-game coverage adjustments.
The numbers – rudimentary and advanced analytics – support “excellent” and make a strong argument this is the best defensive squad since the program crashed the national scene with an Elite Eight run in 1999.
The fourth-ranked Zags (32-1) are on pace to have the lowest defensive field-goal percentage (36.8) during that span. The 2009 team held the top spot at 37.8. In terms of 3-point defense, the current crew allows 30.0 percent, second to last season’s 29.8. In points allowed, the Zags give up 61.2, trailing only 2013’s 59.9.
The 32-win 2013 team, 35-win 2015 squad and current Zags boast similar stats.
“We still do the Jerry Krause post-game report,” Jakus said. “Riccardo (Fois) does it. We’ve carried on the tradition.”
The Zags are second nationally with a .87 defensive efficiency rating (DER), based on the number of points per possession. The NCAA average is 1.04. DER factors include opponent FG percentage, turnover percentage, defensive rebounding percentage and free-throw percentage.
“The best we’ve ever done (since tracking in the early 2000s),” Jakus said. “It’s not just about the number, but the ability to switch ball screens, Zach (Collins) and Przemek (Karnowski) and the rim protection, the guards’ willingness to guard bigs after switches and box out.”
Gonzaga closely monitors made 3-pointers because WCC teams rely on the 3 more than most conferences.
The Zags go deeper into DER and OER by breaking it down into categories, such as transition, half-court man, half-court zone and full-court press.
Gonzaga early on – Florida, Arizona, Washington, Akron, Tennessee – was giving up offensive rebounds at a high rate, ranking in the 170s nationally. That figure has since dropped into the 30s.
Other positive indicators: GU is in the top 13 in opponents’ free-throw percentage (number attempted).
“We’re not only playing great defense, we’re defending without fouling,” Jakus said. “That’s a big deal for us.”
Gonzaga’s goal is .90 DER. It becomes worrisome when an opponent reaches .95, which is still well below the national average.
Players have individual DER ratings. Karnowski, for example, this season has been in the .50s to .60s. Those figures can be broken down into his post-touch defense, isolation defense, etc.
“Przemek affects the game without blocking the shot more than some of the great shot-blockers,” Jakus said. “His DER is as good as you can get as a big man.”
Rim protection provided by Karnowski, Collins, Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie allows guards to challenge shooters on the 3-point arc.
“It allows you to be aggressive,” guard Jordan Mathews said.
Said Jakus: “Protecting the 3-point line and the rim at the same time is something we look at.”
Few pointed out the versatility of the bigs to guard “stretch” forwards, or switch on screens and defend guards. Williams is one of the team’s top defenders with his ability to move his feet, absorb the scouting report and contest at the rim.
Guards Nigel Williams-Goss, the team leader in steals with 56, and Silas Melson play position defense and follow assignments.
“And they will make plays,” Few said. “That’s when we’re at our best.”
Gonzaga held Saint Mary’s to 18 first-half points. GU had seven steals among the Gaels’ 10 turnovers. Saint Mary’s first-half OER was .50. The Gaels made 12 of 15 field goals to open the second half but then went cold and finished with an overall OER in the .80s.
“That’s not human,” Jakus marveled of the first half. “For a numbers guy, that’s a top 20 team. That just doesn’t happen.”
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