Monday, October 24, 2005
Are You Ga-Ga Over 'Zaga?
Admit it. You fawn over Adam Morrison's flowing hair and retro striped socks. You picked the Zags to make at least the Sweet 16 in your tournament pool for the last three years. You even know that they're really called the Bulldogs, but prefer the funner, hipper "Zags."
And you're not alone. Gonzaga has become the country's favorite college basketball underdog after three straight Cinderella runs in the Dance at the turn of the century (see Ken Pomeroy's summer post for more on that). The reputation held up well throughout the offseason and carried the team toward the top of this year's preseason polls. Yoni Cohen averaged the early rankings from several well-known sources, and Gonzaga came in at #7. No one ranked them lower than 10th, and two pollsters placed them as high as #4. Are the Zags really that good? Are they really a Final Four caliber team?
Let's break down Gonzaga's important numbers from last season, starting with the offense.
As you can see, the offense was very well-rounded. When you shoot well, don't turn the ball over, rebound your own misses, and shoot a lot of free throws, you tend to score a lot of points, and Gonzaga's top ten offensive efficiency reflected that. Now let's turn to the defensive end of the court.
In recent years, Mark Few has favored the defensive philosophy of foregoing turnovers in order to keep everyone back in position to defend and rebound. Gonzaga forgets about steals so they can be better prepared to contest shots and minimize easy putbacks from offensive rebounds. It might seem difficult to have a good defense while being among the worst teams in the country at forcing turnovers, but the approach was successful last year for schools like Wisconsin, Connecticut, Utah, and Nevada, as all finished among the top 20 defenses in points allowed per possesion.
Gonzaga didn't join those elite defenses because it wasn't successful at keeping down opponents' shooting percentages, and their perimeter defense was especially vulnerable. The Zags allowed teams to shoot 35% from downtown. That doesn't seem overwhelming at first, but it is the scoring equivalent of hitting 53% on two-pointers (since the shots are worth 1.5 times more). Even more troublesome was that Gonzaga opponents took 40%(!) of their shots from behind the arc. That's a pretty big red flag that a team is having trouble guarding the perimeter.
Gonzaga returns every significant player except starting big man Ronny Turiaf. The offense should again be deadly - Adam Morrison is a legitimate All-American, Derek Raivio is a three-point marksman, J.P. Batista shot over 60% and hit the offensive glass very hard last year, and Sean Mallon should be decent in Turiaf's old position. Ronny took 259 free throw shots, so it's hard to imagine the team finishing near the top in FTM/FGA again, but they have the pieces in place for a very efficient offense.
Defense provides the most room for improvement, but it looks like it'll be a big concern again this year. Turiaf was the team's only shot blocker and its best defensive rebounder (with a very very nice 24% defensive rebound rate), so it's hard to see them being as tough on the interior. Raivio and Morrison will both be playing a lot of minutes again, so I'm skeptical that the perimeter defense will be much improved, either. Gonzaga does welcome freshman Jeremy Pargo, who they claim is a great athlete, but I doubt he'll see enough minutes to have a big impact on the defense.
Does this story sound famaliar? Rewind to the preseason poll from last year. Wake Forest was ranked #2 in the nation. Their outstanding offense was led by an NBA lottery pick (Chris Paul), but their middle-of-the-road defense prevented them from even approaching the early expectations. If Gonzaga continues to let opponents fire at will from the outside, they'll share the same fate.
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