SALT LAKE CITY – Zach Norvell Jr. was Gonzaga’s microwave oven last year, galvanizing the Bulldogs in NCAA Tournament wins over UNC Greensboro and Ohio State with his clutch shot-making.
The sophomore guard from Chicago won’t settle for being a niche player this March, though, and displayed what he’s added to his toolbox in Gonzaga’s 87-49 blowout of Fairleigh Dickinson at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
The FDU guards saw it from Norvell just about every time they walked the ball up the floor: unmistakable, determined, dogged defense.
“He’s definitely a good defender, especially his length,” Fairleigh Dickinson senior Darnell Edge said. “He made it difficult for me to attack and get downhill.”
Norvell and his fellow guards, Josh Perkins and Geno Crandall, amplified the pressure on FDU’s backcourt and eliminated the Knights’ top two scoring threats in a wire-to-wire rout on Thursday, holding Edge and sophomore Jahlil Jenkins to just 14 points on 3-of-19 shooting (15 percent) from the field and 2 of 11 (18 percent) from beyond the arc.
Edge, FDU’s leading scorer, was at the top of GU’s scouting report. The 6-foot-2 guard gave the Bulldogs even more reason to make him a priority after his 33-point effort powered the Knights to a First Four win over Prairie View A&M Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio.
The Zags usually have to rely on spliced-up game film to scout their opponents this time of the year, but Tuesday’s play-in game served up a rare opportunity. GU players and coaches huddled around a projector in their team hotel, flipped on truTV and watched their next foe play a full 40-minute game.
“If you’re watching the full game, you can see the flow, when they like to take shots, what they like to do if they’re not taking shots,” Crandall said. “Things like that. So I think it did give us a unique opportunity to maybe see it live, I guess, and a lot of us were watching it together. So we were talking, ‘Hey, if I do this when he does that, can you have my back?’ ”
The Bulldogs knew they’d have to stymie Edge, averaging 16.9 points per game, and Jenkins, who chipped in 22 points Tuesday night and scored 20 in FDU’s Northeast Conference title-game win.
“Both of those guards came in on sort of a hot streak,” said Norvell, who noted that his mission on the defensive end of the floor Thursday was to “Take it personal. Just want to give them tough looks as many times as possible.”
That mantra – “take it personal” – came up a few times on Thursday.
“They’re at the top of our scouting report, so I think (Norvell) took it personal,” Perkins said. “I know I did, Geno did.”
By the time Edge or Jenkins crossed the time line, a GU guard was usually already breathing down their neck. And on the rare occasion one of FDU’s guards did beat the initial defender, another one was already standing in his path.
“Every time I tried to go by, man, there was another defender there,” Jenkins said. “Or if I get by them, then I spin, there was somebody there. Darnell had a tough time getting shots off also. You could tell that their game plan was trying to take us out of the game early.”
Edge and Jenkins fired up 29 shots against Prairie View A&M earlier in the week, but the Zags limited them to just 19.
“They’re real long and athletic, so they kind of have enough length to stay off of us and still contest shots,” Edge said. “… Usually in our conference, we can drive, get downhill, kick it and hit an open shot. At this level, you drive, you kick it, they’re still there. Someone’s closing out. So it’s just hard to get open and get downhill and make plays happen.”
Norvell, on a night he also scored 13 points, dished seven assists and grabbed six rebounds, was usually the top enforcer.
“He’s an excellent defender. I don’t think he gets enough credit for that,” Crandall said.
“Everybody’s always worried about, is he going to go off for 30? Is he going to hit five, six, seven 3s? He’s just an excellent defender. Tough, hard-nosed kind of guy. He’s going to go in and try to get loose balls, try to get steals, he’s going to rebound offensively, defensively. He’s really a linchpin kind of guy for this team, and he brings it every night.”
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