GLENDALE, Ariz. — You probably think you know Gonzaga. You’ve watched them in nearly two decades worth of NCAA tournaments when they’ve been good, but not quite good enough. You’ve probably even tuned in late on a Monday night when they’re playing in a bandbox gym in the West Coast Conference and beating a team that resembles Hickory High. This has contributed to a perception of the Zags as a remarkable program, but a cut below the elite teams from the power conferences.
March 30, 2017
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But this time, just focus on one number: 85.8. That’s how many points per 100 possessions Gonzaga has allowed this season per Ken Pomeroy (kenpom.com) — best in the country by an astounding four points (for context, the gap between No. 4 and No. 25 on defense is four points per 100). But, one might argue, isn’t that because of the weak WCC competition Gonzaga plays? There’s a number for that, too! Pomeroy adjusts for schedule strength, and it still rates Gonzaga No. 1 by a significant 1.8 points per 100 margin over South Carolina, the team it will play in the Final Four.
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In other words, Gonzaga’s defense is legitimate and has backed up those numbers in the NCAA tournament, holding Northwestern to 41% shooting, West Virginia to 26.7% and previously red-hot Xavier to 35.5%.
This isn’t smoke and mirrors. Gonzaga is excellent guarding the ball, and 6-9 Johnathan Williams is a long-armed, athletic defender who can switch onto guards or come from the weak side to block shots. Combined with 7-1 center Przemek Karnowski, who is good at staying vertical in the post, and 7-foot rim protector and potential NBA first-round pick Zach Collins, it’s plain difficult to get easy shots against the Zags.
If Gonzaga plays a typical defensive game, it should beat offensively challenged South Carolina. And then it will come down to a simple question: Can the Bulldogs make some shots Monday night? Given what they did against Xavier, drilling 12 threes in 24 attempts under immense pressure to finally make a Final Four, the bet here is they rise to the occasion.