Home or neutral court, small crowds or fanless arenas, defensive-minded coaches or talent-rich blue bloods, pandemic interruptions or not. Doesn’t matter. Gonzaga’s offense has encountered few speed bumps through seven games.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense has registered 10 straight seasons inside the top five nationally in scoring defense. On Saturday, the top-ranked Zags posted the best shooting percentage and second highest point total against the Cavaliers in Bennett’s 12 years.
Bennett echoed West Virginia’s Bob Huggins and Kansas’ Bill Self when describing how the Zags had pierced their defenses. The three are among the most accomplished and respected coaches, particularly defensively, in college basketball.
Bennett noted that his current squad hasn’t been very good defensively so far, but he summarized the assortment of challenges Gonzaga presents.
“They’re very dangerous offensively,” Bennett said after GU’s 98-75 victory in Fort Worth, Texas. “When (Corey) Kispert gets going like that, (Drew) Timme is a handful in the post. He can score. If you go and trap him, they’ve got guys out there who, boom, they’re set and ready to shoot it.
“They score so well in transition – 25% of their scoring is in transition, and we helped that even more with the turnovers. We had a lot of trouble on ball-screen defense. We were so worried about our guys who were stretching and there were layups at the rim, and then when we stayed too long, we left guys wide open. So they had us every time.”
Gonzaga (7-0) dropped 102 points on then-No. 6 Kansas in the season opener, the most allowed by the Jayhawks in a regulation game since 1990. Gonzaga made 77.3% on 2-pointers, the highest yielded by KU in Self’s 18 seasons.
West Virginia probably did the best job against Gonzaga but still gave up 87 points, nearly 50% shooting, 60 paint points and 23 points off turnovers. The Zags torched Iowa with 13 3-pointers and would have surpassed 100 points with an average showing at the free-throw line.
Of all seasons, this one during a pandemic would seemingly frown on gaudy statistics and fluid offense, but Gonzaga boasts skill, versatility and experience with four of the five starters either starters or rotation players last year.
Freshman Jalen Suggs and transfer guards Andrew Nembhard and Aaron Cook have fit in seamlessly, hardly a surprise given Suggs’ sterling prep credentials and the two transfers combining for 137 starts at their previous schools.
“We’ve been shut down on numerous occasions if you look back even to the spring,” coach Mark Few said of the pandemic. “A lot of it is innate feel for the game that they came to Gonzaga with. When you look at what Andrew brings, Jalen brings, but also Corey’s done a great job over the years really understanding that, and Joel (Ayayi) has done a great job really growing that.
“And they’ve done a good job listening and refining even Andrew and Jalen on what we’re looking for in our system. Anton (Watson) passes the ball well, obviously, that kind of all adds up.”
Four-game homestand begins with NAU
Gonzaga returns home for four straight games, three this week. Northern Arizona is first up Monday, followed by Dixie State on Tuesday and San Francisco on Saturday in the WCC opener.
The Lumberjacks (1-5) lost their first five games before edging Denver last Tuesday. They rank No. 317 in scoring offense (58.7) and have shot above 40.4% in just once.
“We get to play the No. 1 team in the country. If I’m 18-22 years old, sign me up for that,” NAU coach Shane Burcar said. “There are so many things we can learn out of this game, it’s an exciting time right now.”
NAU, 16-14 last season, was picked eighth in the Big Sky Conference preseason poll.
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