Gonzaga’s West Coast Conference opponents have tried to exhaust the shot clock, they’ve been quite physical and they’ve trotted out quirky zone defenses.
Add one more tactic to the list: Devoting heavy resources toward slowing Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, since Gonzaga’s forward tandem has powered the nation’s top-scoring offense.
Hachimura and Clarke keep humming along, both scoring in double figures in all 31 regular-season games. Still, foes of late have been willing to live with the trade-offs that come with concentrating on the two bigs.
The No. 1-ranked Zags, more specifically their guards, have noticed, and they’re taking advantage of their increased opportunities.
Near the 13-minute mark of the first half last Saturday, Hachimura had the ball out front 30 feet from the basket after Saint Mary’s guard Tommy Kuhse denied a wing pass to point guard Josh Perkins.
As Hachimura drove, 6-foot-10 freshman Matthias Tass backpedaled quickly and Gaels guard Jordan Ford left Geno Crandall on the wing to stop Hachimura’s penetration. Hachimura flipped the ball to Crandall, who had a one-bounce direct path to the rim for an easy layup before the fleet-footed Ford could recover.
“They were basically telling our guards you have to score,” coach Mark Few said. “For most part, I thought Perk did a good job and Geno picked a couple of spots where he did the same. Perk’s a good scorer. He’s always been a good scorer and he’s always been a really good shooter.
“If that’s what they want to give us, those guys have to take it.”
Perkins led GU with 19 points, all from inside the 3-point arc and five on free throws. Crandall added eight points. Zach Norvell Jr. had a rare off night with just six points but he had back-to-back 20-point plus games against Pepperdine and BYU.
The trio combined for just six assists as the Gaels crowded Hachimura and Clarke and forced Gonzaga into more isolation plays.
“Coming off ball screens, they’re scared of my passing ability and Geno’s as well,” Perkins said. “They want to take away the lobs and take away BC (Clarke) and Rui from scoring the ball. So the lanes (opened) up a little more, I shot some floaters and got some layups. I had to be more aggressive.”
Roughly midway through the first half, Perkins took a pass on the wing and came around a Clarke screen. He drove down the middle of the lane for a layup while SMC forwards Malik Fitts and Jordan Hunter clamped on Clarke rolling to the opposite side of the basket.
Hachimura and Clarke still combined for 32 points, about five less than their average, after torching Pacific for 48 two nights earlier.
Perkins scored a season-high 21 points against BYU and he’s averaging 14.6 over the last five games. In that same stretch, Crandall has made 12 of 19 shots. In the last three games, Crandall is averaging 8.7 points.
The North Dakota grad transfer started the season with 28 points in the first three games. He struggled in Maui and broke his right (shooting) hand in practice prior to the North Dakota State game. He missed nine games, but since returning he’s slowly found his comfort level in the offense. His scoring totals and field-goal percentages have been on the rise.
“We knew a little of the game plan they were going to have,” Crandall said following an eight-point, four-assist night against BYU on Senior Night. “Coach Few talked to us guards about getting downhill. People have been so worried about Rui and BC because they’re so athletic and good around the rim.
“A lot of big men are stepping toward us and backing up, so we have to finish at the rim. That’s something we’ve worked on every day in practice. It’s going to make it that much harder to stop our offense.”
Crandall has been noticeably more aggressive in recent weeks with defenses trying to interrupt Gonzaga’s inside-out approach. The Zags don’t necessarily pound the ball to the low block, often preferring to use Hachimura’s and Clarke’s driving ability and high-low prowess.
“That’s something we talk about all the time, just being aggressive makes the team that much better,” Perkins said. “Being aggressive and getting more guys’ shots so you have to guard the full team.”
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