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Gonzaga trying to get back on track, faces Merrimack’s unique 2-3 zone

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 8, 2021

Gonzaga’s two games last week were against Tarleton State, which relied on pressure defense and a slow-paced offense, and Alabama, an athletic squad that launched 3-pointers or raced to the rim.

The Zags didn’t handle either style particularly well, holding off Tarleton State 64-55 and falling to the Crimson Tide 91-82 in Seattle.

This week brings different challenges as the fifth-ranked Zags entertain Merrimack College and its no-3’s zone defense on Thursday before Washington, which has adjusted from full-time zone to man-to-man most of the time, is scheduled to visit on Sunday. However, the Huskies haven’t been able to practice due to COVID-19 issues in the program that forced postponement of last Thursday’s game against Arizona and a forfeit of Sunday’s contest vs. UCLA.

The Zags (7-2) are experiencing a non-conference variety pack with four ranked foes, three that were in the top five when they faced GU, and a handful of squads transitioning to Division I that included Bellarmine’s quirky no-dribble offense.

Merrimack, based in North Andover, Massachusetts, made a splash in its first Division I season in 2019-20. The Warriors, picked last in the Northeast Conference (NEC), won the regular-season title with a 14-4 record, but they aren’t eligible to play in the NEC Tournament or March Madness until 2023-24 under D-I transition rules.

Merrimack, 9-9 last season, was picked fifth in this season’s NEC preseason poll.

The Warriors (4-6) play a 2-3 zone with the goal of forcing turnovers and limiting 3-pointers and layups. Their stats align with the philosophy: Opponents are averaging 17 turnovers, 59.9 points and just 6.4 made 3s on 18.1 attempts per game.

Gonzaga hasn’t seen much zone, other than from Dixie State in the season opener. Washington plays roughly one-third zone and two-thirds man-to-man.

“We really hang our hat on creating a lot of turnovers and getting a lot of steals and really making chaos,” Merrimack coach Joe Gallo, who took over in 2016-17 when the program was Division II, told the Basketball Podcast in Sept. 2020. “I know everybody says they take away 3s and layups.

“If you really watch us and look at our numbers we truly take away 3s and layups, so you’re taking a lot of 2s off the bounce and floaters and runners and rushed shots that your coaches don’t necessarily want you to take.”

The Warriors’ patient offense – they’re No. 350 out of 358 teams in KenPom adjusted tempo, Tarleton State ranks 355 – is only putting up 57 points on 39% shooting. They’ve attempted 30 more 3s than opponents, but have only one more made 3 to show for it.

Merrimack, No. 276 in the NET rankings and No. 259 in KenPom, lost to Rutgers 48-35 and to Virginia Tech 72-43.

The Gonzaga-Merrimack came together the new-fashioned way: Online.

Gallo told the Boston Globe he was on his computer scouring one of two sites his program uses for scheduling purposes when he saw Gonzaga was looking for a home game.

The game was scheduled after a couple of text messages with GU director of basketball operations Jorge Sanz. Merrimack will make $85,000.

“I think it was Aug. 10 when we agreed,” said Gallo, whose program will earn another big payday when the Warriors face Indiana on Sunday. “The only teams that have games left by then were the ones that are really good and no one wants to play. I might be the only one dumb enough to say yes.”

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