After three games at the Maui Invitational where Gonzaga held the opposition to 65 points per game while averaging 69 of its own, it was easy to conclude the Bulldogs were ahead of schedule on one side of the floor and still playing catch-up on the other.
The defense hasn’t regressed in two wins since returning from Honolulu, and Gonzaga’s offense is starting to trend in the right direction after an 81-point outing last week at home against Cal State Bakersfield and an 89-point showing on Saturday against USC in Las Vegas – games in which the Bulldogs shot 52% from the field and combined to make 17 3-pointers.
The Bulldogs’ offense is bubbling and could be on the verge of an explosion this week as Gonzaga faces two teams that have been less than exceptional at preventing their opponents from racking up big numbers. The first of those is Arkansas-Pine Bluff (4-5), which visits McCarthey Athletic Center for a 6 p.m. tipoff on Tuesday (KHQ/ROOT).
The Golden Lions rank No. 361 nationally (of 362 teams) in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defense metric and just 357th in scoring defense, allowing 85.6 points per game. The numbers are worse when you consider only games against Division I opposition. In those six, Arkansas-Pine Bluff is giving up 94.8 points per game, including 101 points to Missouri, 100 to Incarnate Word and 107 to Oklahoma.
On Saturday, No. 7 Gonzaga (6-1) travels to Seattle to face a Washington team that’s allowing 74.3 ppg (No. 241) after surrendering 100 points to San Diego State and 86 to Colorado State on Saturday in a game that preceded GU’s against USC at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Gonzaga’s offensive progress can be attributed to a handful of things. The Bulldogs’ committed a season-low nine turnovers while scoring 81 points against Cal State Bakersfield, then drilled 12 3-pointers against USC – five more than they’ve made in any other game this season.
“I think we flowed better, we pitched it ahead better, we played with better pace,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after the USC game. “Definitely. Then obviously when you shoot the way we shoot, we definitely haven’t made 12 3’s this year so it’s nice when the ball goes in. It kind of solves a lot of issues.”
Improved offensive efficiency from junior point guard Ryan Nembhard shouldn’t be overlooked either when assessing Gonzaga’s growth as a team.
The Creighton transfer delivered a season-high 22 points against Cal State Bakersfield then followed that up with a team-high 15 points against USC. Nembhard hadn’t shot better than 44% from the field in any game this season before making 66% and then 54% in the last two games. He was 3 of 5 from behind the 3-point arc against the Roadrunners and Trojans after making just 2 of 17 through the first five games.
“I think we have to just keep working on our offense,” Nembhard said after the CSUB game. “I think our defense is at a good place right now, but we’ve just got to figure out sometimes what we’re doing offensively. We’ve got to flow to our next actions and keep the ball moving, keep getting to our next actions quicker so things could flow instead of stuff being so stagnant. I think that’s where we run into some of our problems.
“It’s a work in progress and coach has been on us in practice for all that stuff, so we’re going to continue to work at it. We’ll figure it out. Gonzaga’s always been great offensively.”
The Golden Lions are in the middle of a challenging three-game stretch that rivals any in the country. UAPB is coming off a 107-86 loss to then No. 25 Oklahoma in Norman, and will face No. 7 Gonzaga before traveling back across the country for another road game, at No. 5 UConn on Saturday.
“I don’t look at us as the underdogs,” junior forward Ismael Plet told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before the Oklahoma game. “I think we can compete with anybody due to our scoring ability and our length and our style and our skill and our size. So, if you guard the ball well, I think we can beat anybody in the country.”
UAPB has one of the nation’s top scorers in junior guard Kylen Milton, whose 21.2 points per game rank 17th among DI players, and he’s one of three guards averaging better than 15 ppg for UAPB, along with Rashad Williams (18.3) and Joe French (15.4).