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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

‘We’ve kind of figured out who we are’: Gonzaga’s progress evident over second half of season

March 15, 2023 Updated Thu., March 16, 2023 at 1:18 p.m.

One by one, several of the criticisms that dogged Gonzaga in November and December have been fading away.

The March Zags look different than Gonzaga of the first two months, when concerns centered on turnovers, defense, guard play, toughness and free-throw shooting.

The issues haven’t gone away completely, but Gonzaga has made it a point to address deficiencies, and the result is a team that won 23 of its past 25 entering the NCAA Tournament and seems better prepared to make an extended run.

“It shows we didn’t peak too early, and we’re just now finding our stride rather than finding it early and burning out,” senior forward Drew Timme said, “You see some teams that are like the best teams you’ve ever played and March comes and they’re nowhere to be found.

“We were like, ‘Who are we?’ We didn’t know who we were earlier this year. Through all the grind and wear and tear of the season, we’ve kind of figured out who we are and I think we’re still figuring it out. And we’re starting to click at the right time.”

Gonzaga (28-5) faces Grand Canyon on Friday in Denver, trying to build off perhaps its most complete performance of the season – a 77-51 blowout over Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference Tournament title game.

“We had to learn how to win, had to come together, had to do it at the defensive end,” senior guard Rasir Bolton said. “Just building that bond and brotherhood being around each other. It took some time for us to grow. I think we’re seeing that now.”

Turning around turnovers

Gonzaga has turned a weakness into a strength.

In the first eight games, GU had double-digit turnovers seven times, including a season-high 20 vs. Texas and three games with 18 (Michigan State, Kentucky and Baylor).

The Zags enter March Madness with single-digit turnovers in nine straight games. They haven’t committed more than 13 turnovers in a game since mid-January.

Assistant coach Brian Michaelson said GU’s turnover percentage is believed to be the best in the program’s 25-year NCAA Tournament run. It’s roughly 11% since January after hovering around 18% earlier this season. Gonzaga averaged just 9.2 turnovers per conference game.

“That surprised me because I know we’ve had some teams that didn’t turn it over,” GU coach Mark Few said. “These guys really heeded the warnings and listened to what we were saying and took to coaching. We’ve taken great care of the ball, knock on wood, down the stretch.”

Point guard Nolan Hickman has committed just six turnovers in his past 10 games, a span of 282 minutes.

“He’s one of the guys that’s done a good job of taking care of the ball,” Few said. “Sometimes with Nolan, he gets a little caught up on whether his shot is dropping or not. We’re just always trying to explain there’s so much more to the game than just that, especially at that position. You’re kind of quarterbacking the whole club.”

Positive defensive signs

The Zags allowed 76 points per game in the WCC and nearly 73 points for the season. Conference foes connected on 46.6% of their shots and roughly 38% from distance.

Those are higher than the Zags would prefer, but they limited opponents to 68.9 points on 43.3% shooting in the past seven games.

“I felt like early on we were trying to be perfect, make sure every rotation is right,” wing Julian Strawther said. “It’s not going to be perfect. We just have to play hard.”

Strawther has improved on defense since the first Loyola Marymount game when Few “really let me hear it. I had to turn it up a notch. I know what I’m capable of. Coach Few is doing a good job of getting the best out of me.”

Saint Mary’s had just 18 field goals and 51 points, season lows for a Division 1 opponent against Gonzaga.

“We were hoping (to play defense like this), but we just didn’t have the connectivity and toughness,” said Few, whose team is No. 76 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. “We were nasty (vs. Saint Mary’s).”

Guards playing tough

OK, we combined guard play and the team’s improved toughness into one category. It’s difficult to quantify toughness with a statistic, but Few knows it when he sees it.

Gonzaga’s guard line was a hot topic for its play at both ends of the court, but that hasn’t been as much of an issue, particularly in the past two months. They’ve been steady offensive contributors, particularly taking care of the ball and hitting timely shots. They’ve generally held up well against numerous talented WCC guards.

“I also like that we’re a lot tougher than we were,” Few said on Selection Sunday. “The young guys got tougher, more physical, a little more gritty defensively than we were in November and December.

“We’ve really been after (Hickman) defensively. I think that’s where these young guards have made the biggest jump.”

There’s been progress across the board.

“All of them, Ben (Gregg), Nolan, Hunter,” Few said, “And we’re not even talking about Anton (Watson) and the big jump he made.”

Free throws falling

NCAA Tournament games are often close in the closing minutes, underscoring the importance of a team’s ability to hit free throws.

Gonzaga’s 70.1% accuracy at the foul line ranks No. 236 out of 352 teams.

That’s not ideal, obviously, but the Zags have done some work in the past nine games to finally reach 70%.

In that span, they’ve hit 72.4%, a percentage would at least put them in the top 150 nationally.

Timme ranks 14th nationally with 225 attempted free throws. In the past 10 games, he’s made 74.2% and lifted his season percentage to 63.6. That improvement roughly corresponds with Few’s decision to offer tips to the All-American.

“Soft and smooth, coach,” Timme said to Few after hitting 7 of 9 at the line in a blowout win over LMU.

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