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Commentary: Defense wins championships, and Texas Tech went all in against Gonzaga

Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Brandon Clarke (15) gets tied up against Texas Tech Red Raiders guard Jarrett Culver (23) during the second half of an NCAA Elite Eight basketball game on Saturday, March 30, 2019, at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. The Red Raiders went on to win 75-69. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Brandon Clarke (15) gets tied up against Texas Tech Red Raiders guard Jarrett Culver (23) during the second half of an NCAA Elite Eight basketball game on Saturday, March 30, 2019, at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. The Red Raiders went on to win 75-69. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
By Mark Zeigler Tribune News Service

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Texas Tech coach Chris Beard will hold up one finger on the sideline as his team retreats down the court on defense.

It is the signal for the Red Raiders’ suffocating man-to-man scheme.

It is also unintentionally symbolic. It’s where they rank nationally in defense.

Defense wins championships. The sports proverb is burned into athletes’ psyches practically from birth, perhaps more out of motivation than any statistical basis, a way for coaches to get players who prefer the more glorified pursuit of scoring to at least pretend they care about preventing it.

But Saturday at Anaheim’s Honda Center we were afforded a rare referendum on its veracity. Gonzaga was college basketball’s No. 1 team in offensive efficiency according to the respected Kenpom metric. Texas Tech was No. 1 in defensive efficiency.

Only one could go to the Final Four on Saturday in Minneapolis.

Texas Tech is. Defense is.

“This is the best team I’ve ever had at taking care of the ball,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said incredulously. “We’ve had games with four turnovers, three turnovers, which is unheard of, halves with zero turnovers.”

The top-seeded Bulldogs had nine in the first half of the West Regional final and finished with 16, shot 36.4 percent in the second half and lost 75-69.

“So it’s real, that defense is real,” Few continued. “Chris has done a great job with it, and it definitely impacted us . It’s tough, it’s real.”

Ask Michigan. It still had six points after 12 minutes Thursday, had 16 at halftime and didn’t crack 20 until four minutes into the second half. Was 1 of 19 behind the 3-point arc, and the one came with 22 seconds left when the walk-ons were in. Trailed by 25 in a Sweet 16 game. Lost 63-44.

The Wolverines ranked second in the nation in fewest turnovers per game at 8.8; had eight by halftime.

“The scouting reports we heard from the different people that played them during this year,” coach John Beilein said, “were that you’re going to be amazed at how quick they are, how good they are at staying in front of people, how they rally to the ball. (That) usually gives us open 3s, and you still can’t get open 3s. They really have a great plan.”

It is equal parts scheme and sweat, the brainchild of an assistant coach who grew up on a cotton farm in West Texas and blue-collar players who, Beard says, have “an understanding you are going to play defense . it’s our just who we are, our DNA.”

The basic principle is to force teams down the sideline, always. Some teams will do this on ball screens, but the Red Raiders do it on everything, shifting their defensive stance to keep you on one side on the floor and not allowing middle penetration. When you do take the bait and drive baseline, you’re met by a bouncy shot blocker or a junk-yard dog frothing to take a charge. When you try to fire a cross-court pass to a seemingly open shooter, there are guys flying at him with outstretched arms – high-hand close-outs, in coachspeak.

Beilein explained that you used to see similar schemes in the early 1980s, but the advent of the 3-point line made teams that over-helped pay by leaving shooters open on the weak side – and the extra point for a 22-footer made it no longer statistically viable. Beard and defensive guru Mark Adams have assembled a group of long, athletic, committed players who have confounded the analytics. And because so few teams defend like them, it makes preparation and in-game acclimation that much more difficult.

Star guard Jarrett Culver was asked what happens in practice if you let your man drive middle or are late closing out on a shooter. He laughed.

“I mean, you’ve got to deal with Coach Adams,” Culver said. “Coach Adams stops the practice and he gets on you and you have to deal with that. So you learn not to do it.”

Gonzaga, still, was able to shoot 50 percent in the first half Saturday and led 37-35 with its high/low post action that pounded the ball deep into the paint to forwards Rui Hachimura (22 points) and Brandon Clarke (18 points).

The second half began and … Texas Tech opened in a zone? Beard, a disciple of Bobby “Zones are a sign of weakness” Knight, rarely plays it except in special circumstances. This qualified.

“When you play against these Hall of Fame coaches, they score like 60 or 70 percent (after timeouts) or the first play of the half,” Beard reasoned. “So why not throw a punch? Sometimes when you throw punches you leave yourself open to get hit, but they’re probably going to score anyway. He’s over there drawing up something great.

“I’ve never minded taking chances against really good coaches and players. Some games where we think we can maybe beat somebody possession after possession we don’t do that, but that was not our thought with Gonzaga. We knew we would have to play almost a perfect game to beat them, and in a lot of ways we did.“

In three possessions against the zone, Gonzaga had a turnover, an air ball and a shot-clock violation.

That’s all it took. Beard put up one finger after that, but sometimes the most effective part of switching defenses is the curveball effect – throwing the opposition out of rhythm. Punch landed. The Bulldogs made 13 shots in the first half on 26 attempts; they made 12 in the second half on 33 attempts.

Among the statistics kept by Texas Tech managers on the bench that don’t show up in the box score are pass deflections. Beard was asked how many they had against the Zags.

“Normally I would know right after the game, win or lose,“ said Beard, who stayed on the floor to cut down nets. “But today was a little different. We celebrated going to the Final Four. Texas Tech is going to the Final Four, Texas Tech is going to the Final Four.

“Some of you look surprised.”

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