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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Thursday / October 19.
  • Final Four Reset: Gonzaga Bulldogs

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    BY: MIKE McCURRY

    There are certain constants perennially associated with the NCAA Tournament: 12-over-5 upsets, No.1 seeds bowing out earlier than expected, conflicting emotions of despair and elation…and everyone’s favorite: paying backhanded compliments to the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

    You know what I’m talking about. The undermining of Gonzaga is an annual spring tradition. Sure, most agree Gonzaga is really good year-after-year, however the flattering praise is almost always directly followed by a “but” phrase.

    “But they play nobody.” (Actually, Gonzaga had a higher strength-of-schedule than those beloved UCLA Bruins this year.)

    “But they beat glorified high school teams in that fairytale conference.” (Gonzaga collected six pre-NCAA Tournament wins over KenPom Top-20 teams, only one less victory than South Carolina, Oregon, and UNC had…combined.)

    “But Mark Few is overrated.” (Few has coached at Gonzaga for 18 years, led them to 18 NCAA Tournaments, and was named AP Coach of the Year on Thursday.)

    “But they never win in March.” (Gonzaga is in the Final Four, two wins away from winning the national championship.)

    Gonzaga detractors are running out of excuses. The Bulldogs have won 36 of 37 games this season, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Nigel Williams-Goss and company were to win two more to secure a national championship.

    One plausible explanation for the moronic hate that some people exhibit toward Gonzaga is their relative anonymity. Their marquee out-of-conference wins over Florida, Iowa State, and Arizona occurred during the holidays, during which the NFL still reigns supreme in many households. As for West Coast Conference play, Gonzaga frequently tipped off at 11:00 p.m. ET, past the bedtime of casual East Coast observers. (Plus, are any late games on work nights worth watching unless Bill Walton is on the call?)

    Consider this your one free pass then, naysayers. Don’t let it happen again. And please, for the love of Karnowski, study up.

    Here’s everything you need to know about Gonzaga heading into Saturday’s national semifinal against 7th-seeded South Carolina (6:09 p.m. ET, CBS).

    Gonzaga hasn’t even played their best offensively so far in the NCAA Tournament…

    Gonzaga’s offense, a balanced attack featuring seven players averaging seven-plus points per game, relies primarily on deadly accurate shot making (especially inside the arc) and taking care of the ball.

    Well, three of Gonzaga’s five worst shooting games this season (using Effective Field Goal Percentage)—plus their second highest single-game Turnover Rate—have taken place in the NCAA Tournament. And yet, the Bulldogs still made it all the way to Phoenix.

    Gonzaga’s toughest March Madness test to date was a 61-58 win over 4th-seeded West Virginia in the Sweet 16. Gonzaga committed turnovers on 24 percent of its possessions that night, playing right into the Mountaineers’ hands, and also converted on just 41 percent of its two-point field goals (the Zags’ worst single-game mark this year). That Gonzaga was able to advance despite their worst offensive showing of the season (in terms of Adjusted Offensive Efficiency) is a remarkable feat.

    To celebrate, Gonzaga erupted from the perimeter against Xavier last Saturday, knocking down 12-of-24 three-pointers en route to an 83-59 victory and a Final Four berth.

    But their defense is downright bananas.

    How then, did Gonzaga survive all those cold shooting nights and move on to the next round?

    Defense.

    Gonzaga has KenPom’s top-ranked defense in America. The Bulldogs allow 86 points per 100 possessions. For comparison’s sake, UNC allows 98 points for every 100 opponents’ trips.

    Both Gonzaga’s first-round opponent (South Dakota State) and Sweet-16 foe (WVU) suffered their worst offensive games of the season versus the Zags (again, using Adjusted Offensive Efficiency). Xavier was held to its 2nd-lowest AOE by Gonzaga.

    The eye test more than supports the advanced metrics, too.

    It starts up front, with the 7-1, 300-pound Przemek Karnowski and 7-footer Zach Collins taking turns at protecting the rim. Throw in power forward Johnathan Williams, whose defensive versatility really stands out on tape—the 6-foot-9 lefty was guarding Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett during long stretches—and it’s no surprise that Gonzaga limits its opponents to 40 percent shooting on twos, the best mark in the country.

    Gonzaga also ranks 4th-best nationally in three-point percentage defense (29.3%). While three-point defense can be fluky and subject to randomness, Bulldogs’ opponents generally don’t test their luck out there too often. Besides the last four games, that is. Gonzaga’s NCAA Tournament opposition have combined to hoist 51 percent of their shots from long distance (national average: 36 percent) with hardly any success to show for it (24 percent accuracy).

    If Mark Few ever suffered from whiplash this year, here’s why…

    Gonzaga ranks 73rd in Adjusted Tempo this season. (Roy Williams just yawned.) While the Zags’ pace won’t be confused with Kentucky’s this weekend at any point, this is the fastest tempo (relative to the other 350 D-1 teams) that a Mark Few-coached team has ever played at in the KenPom Era (since 2001-02).

    Nigel Williams-Goss is the best answer as to why. Recently named a second-team All-American, Williams-Goss (16.7 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 4.6 APG) loves to put pressure on the defense by running downhill in transition, even after a made basket.

    The Washington transfer (more on that below) possesses a vision that most point guards simply don’t have, allowing him to spot the likes of Jordan Mathews (39 percent three-point shooter), Josh Perkins (40 percent) and Silas Melson (38 percent) spotting up on the fast break. Or, NWG can utilize his enviable swiping skills to poke the ball free and go coast-to-coast by himself.

    Last year, 17 percent of the Bulldogs’ total shots were taken in transition. This season, that figure has skyrocketed to 24 percent. Keep in mind Gonzaga’s half-court offense, consisting of plenty of post-ups with shooters lined up everywhere, is terrifying in its own right.

    It’s all about the transfers…

     Gonzaga lost its top-three leading scorers from last year in Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis, and Eric McClellan.

    How did Mark Few replace that production? Mainly via the transfer market.

    Williams-Goss, a former McDonald’s All-American, spent his first two seasons at Washington before relocating five hours east to Spokane, Washington, where Gonzaga is located.

    Johnathan Williams, coming off a 19-point, 8-rebound performance against Xavier—he was named the West Region’s Most Outstanding Player—spent his first two collegiate seasons at Missouri.

    And Mathews (10.7 PPG), a highly coveted four-star recruit back in the day, spent his first three years at Cal.

    Williams-Goss and Williams had to sit out last year, whereas Mathews was eligible immediately as a grad transfer. All three are in their first season at Gonzaga, something you definitely wouldn’t know by observing this team’s cohesion and unselfishness.

    The insertion of NWG has allowed Perkins to slide off the ball to the two-guard, where he is much more comfortable as a catch-and-shoot specialist. Williams has been a do-it-all godsend, converting on 63 percent of his twos and 41 percent of his threes (15-of-37) all while exhibiting the ability to lock down the opposing 2-thru-4 men. And Mathews, a lights-out 41 percent three-point shooter despite taking 57 percent of his career field-goal attempts from long range, can singlehandedly carry an offense when he’s in rhythm.

    Remember, Gonzaga has lost a game this year…

    Gonzaga’s last regular season game came back on February 25th, a home date with BYU that Las Vegas predicted the Bulldogs to win by 20.5 points.

    We all know what happened by now. BYU pulled off the stunner, Gonzaga’s hopes of an undefeated regular season went right out the window, and the Zags’ bandwagon got significantly roomier.

    It was good for Gonzaga to lose once before March Madness, right? That’s what everyone said, at least. That’s what everyone always says. And at this point, it’s a tired and lazy argument.

    Villanova’s loss to Seton Hall in last year’s Big East Tournament championship is not what caused the Wildcats to make an otherworldly 63 percent of their twos and 50 percent of their threes during their national title run, just as Gonzaga’s loss to BYU is not the reason for the Bulldogs still standing.

    Regardless, I found Williams-Goss’ stance on the BYU loss fascinating.

    Via a recent ESPNU on-air interview, NWG told Andy Katz Gonzaga’s main takeaway from February 25th is that the feeling of losing was so miserable, the team was going to do everything in their power to prevent a repeat experience.

    So far, so good on that front.

    Photo: @ZagMBB

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