When I see point totals like 104 and 92 in college basketball, defense usually isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. The Zags were definitely getting buckets last week, but they’ve been putting hard work in on both ends of the court lately. Consider: Gonzaga had 22 steals last week—11 in each game. Guards Ryan Woolridge, Admon Gilder and Joel Ayayi had 3 steals each in the game against Santa Clara—a game that saw the Bulldogs block 7 shots as well—Killian Tillie and Drew Timme getting 2 blocks each. Ayayi had another 4 steals against BYU as well.
Gonzaga outrebounded both opponents by a combined total of 90 to 51. Though most rebounds happen on the defensive end, it was the offensive rebounding numbers that showed improvement from the first game to the next. One of the few statistics in which Santa Clara came out in front of Gonzaga was on the offensive glass, where the Broncos edged out the Bulldogs 16-14. Perhaps in an effort to shore up one of the areas of the game where they had trouble against Santa Clara, Gonzaga pulled down 9 offensive rebounds on Saturday, but allowed BYU only one offensive rebound on the Zags’ defensive end.
Those numbers tell you something, but good defense isn’t always the easiest thing to quantify. My high school coach used to say (repeatedly): “The best play you can make in basketball is to take a charge, and they don’t even keep track of those.” He was also the football coach, so I think the thing he really liked about that defensive highlight was the collision that taking a charge involves—since the defensive player must often accept a blow delivered with the full force and inertia of the offensive player’s body without flinching in the least (as they’re being knocked down). The Zags had at least one of those Saturday when Drew Timme stood up straight just outside the restrictive circle under the basket and unflinchingly took the brunt of a driving Cougar attempting to get a lay-up—going down to the floor, forcing a turnover, negating the offensive possession for BYU, and giving the ball back to the Zags.
Perhaps an even better play in basketball (because it involves the coordinated effort of all 5 defensive players) is to get a shot-clock violation. Shot-clock violations only happen when the defensive pressure is so intense and consistent that the other team is either unwilling to take a poor shot in the time allotted to do so, or are just plain unable to get a shot that hits the rim off in time. Again, the Zags had at least one of those on Thursday against Santa Clara early on in the game, adding inspiration to a defensive effort throughout the half that limited the Broncos to just 22 points.
More often than steals, blocks, shot-clock violations and charges taken though, defensive effort is simply working your tail off to stop the opponent from doing what they so desperately want to do (score), and being very aware of what as many of the 9 other players on the court are doing. It’s the coordinated cutting off of the opposition’s efforts at every impasse. Last week you saw Gonzaga players in synch and absolutely flying around at times in both contests. And it ended up creating numerous fast break and transition opportunities on the offensive end—including a high-flying fast break dunk against BYU by Admon Gilder (off a steal by Joel Ayayi), and a fast break lay-in by Joel Ayayi against SCU (off a steal by Admon Gilder).
In the end, the best quantifier of the defensive effort for a team—definitely the most important one—is the final score. And limiting Santa Clara to just 54 points on Thursday, and BYU to 69 on Saturday was a great achievement. BYU had scored more than 90 in both of its previous games, and 84 against Saint Mary’s before that. Santa Clara scored 84 in a win against Pacific on the same Saturday the Zags beat BYU—and any time you hold a team under 60 in Division 1 basketball, it was doubtless a great effort. Some Cougars fans are going to argue that Yoeli Childs’s absence in the game would have changed the outcome a good deal—especially in terms of offensive production. There’s no doubt about that—but it doesn’t take away, I think, from the defensive achievement. We look forward to the game on February 22nd in Provo that sees BYU at their full strength and in their own building. Childs, with teammates TJ Haws (who had 17 points against the Zags and showed off some very nifty passing skills), and Jake Toolson (who came away with 16 points), will be a challenge that can help this defense grow even more.
Gonzaga continues to impress on both ends even though there isn’t much rest being had for any of the Bulldog players. What we’ve seen develop through these first 21 games for Gonzaga is a very tight rotation. Since it was announced earlier last week that Anton Watson would be out for the season as a result of continuing shoulder problems and scheduled surgery, Mark Few is giving a vast majority of minutes to just 7 players. A 7-player rotation is great in terms of developing a cohesive group on both ends of the court. It’s troublesome, though, when any of that 7 gets into foul trouble—and especially troublesome when any injury problems make that into a rotation of just 6. Five minutes into the second half against BYU, with the Zags up by a slim 7 points, that very situation came about when Filip Petrusev, the high scorer on the team and a key piece of the Gonzaga offense down low, rolled his ankle and went down in excruciating pain. Luckily there wasn’t much foul trouble at the time. The very skilled and able-bodied Drew Timme filled in, and Corey Kispert logged some minutes in the roll of forward instead of shooting guard without missing a beat in his offensive production for the night—and the Bulldogs ended up extending their lead rather than suffering as a result.
Killian Tillie, who seems to be almost fully mended from his own early-season knee surgery, ended up leading all Zags in scoring and rebounding with his double-double against BYU—gathering 22 points and 10 rebounds and shooting 7 for 13 from the field. Kispert had even better shooting percentages against the Cougars, going 7 of 12 from the field and 4 of 7 from beyond the arc to gather 19 points. Against Santa Clara it was two other starters and a 6th man off the bench leading the offensive production. Petrusev earned 18 points on Thursday night and added 7 rebounds. Coming off the bench, Admon Gilder had the same 18 points on a 4 of 6 effort from the field, 2 of 4 from deep and a perfect 8 of 8 (!) from the free throw line.
It was Joel Ayayi who led the Bulldogs in scoring against the Broncos, and filled up the stat sheet in both of last week’s contests. Against the Broncos, he shot 8 of 13 from the field, 2 of 5 from beyond the arc, and added 6 rebounds and 3 steals to his 19 points. He did something similar stat-wise against BYU with 14 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals. While Drew Timme didn’t earn his more and more common double-double on the evening against BYU, he went a perfect 3 of 3 from the field for 7 points, 5 rebounds and 2 steals. Against the Broncos he added 15 points and 11 rebounds to his 2 blocks. What gems these young Gonzaga players are becoming!
One very welcome change we saw last week was both opponents shooting a good deal worse from the free-throw line than the Bulldogs, who were surprisingly good—even stellar. Against SCU, GU had, I believe, their best mark yet this season with an 87.5% mark on a 28 for 32 attempts effort, highlighted by perfection from Kispert (5 for 5) and Gilder (8 for 8) and a respectable 6 for 8 from Petrusev. Against BYU the Zags had a slightly less impressive 75% mark on a 19 for 25 effort. It’s great to see that statistic moving in the right direction for the Bulldogs after a somewhat worrisome effort from the charity stripe throughout the season so far that saw games with Gonzaga shooting below 60 and even 50%. Last week bumped the season’s free throw percentage up a bit to 67.6%, a number we all hope continues to rise as the players strokes from the line are looking smoother and more relaxed. Both Santa Clara and BYU suffered woes last week in this area, going for 47.4% on Thursday and 50% on Saturday. Taking free throws in the very intimidating and sometimes downright hostile McCarthy Athletic Center in Spokane can’t be easy.
After last week’s convincing performances, it may seem wrong to many Gonzaga fans that the team was bumped out of the top slot in the AP Top 25 by Baylor in a very close vote. Baylor had 33 1st place votes and 1591 total points compared to 31 first place votes for Gonzaga and 1588 points. Baylor’s victories over Iowa State and Oklahoma State in the Big 12 were more impressive in the panels’ eyes than Gonzaga’s blowout wins in the WCC. It’s a bummer that you can win by 50 and nearly 25 and still slip a spot in the rankings for sure, but it’s a voting matter that no one should attach a great deal of importance to. There’s always the possibility that the Zags will regain the top slot if Baylor slips up against West Virginia or any of their other conference foes.
Pacific in next on Gonzaga’s slate in the WCC on Saturday night. Besides Jahlil Trip, who is averaging 15.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per contest, Pacific is what Steve Cameron of The Spokane Review calls a “hoops by committee” team “as no less than 12 players are averaging at least 14.4 minutes per game.” In other words, The Tigers do exactly the opposite of the Zags’ slim rotation. Pacific has quite a fat rotation of players. Perhaps their best victory of late was a quadruple overtime (I’d never even heard of a quadruple overtime) thriller against Saint Mary’s in which they prevailed 107-99. Jahlil Trip gathered 39 points and 11 rebounds in that game. The Tigers just lost on Thursday to BYU, 74-60—in a game that saw Yoeli Childs return to action. He and teammate Jake Toolson did a majority of the scoring for BYU, combining for 54 points. I have no doubt everyone on Gonzaga is going to be pumped up for another home contest on Saturday—and all seriousness is going to be brought to facing these Tigers. Hopefully Filip Petrusev will be healed up enough to join the starters. If not, this might be closer than the games last week. I’m gonna say Gonzaga wins 83-61 if Petrusev doesn’t play. If he does play, I say the Zags breaks 90 again 91-58. Have a great weekend, and GO ZAGS!
~ Clark Karoses