The Zags took down Southern Miss and previously ranked No. 11 Oregon before falling to a Michigan team, now ranked No. 4 in the tournament championship.
But that’s not to say it was a perfect trip to the Bahamas. The team showed an unexpected vulnerability which wound up costing the Zags a trophy and could well come back to haunt them in games to come.
Entering the season, Gonzaga’s strength was supposed to be its frontcourt. Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev, Anton Watson and Drew Timme are all 6-foot-10 or taller and talented. Over the six games prior to last week, that strength was on full display. During that span, the Zags put up the sixth best two-point percentage in the nation, connecting on 59.4 percent of their shots inside the arc.
After leaving the Bahamas, the Zags rank 50th in the nation and that percentage for the season has dropped to 54.1 percent.
There are two excuses, for lack of a better word, to explain the Zags ineptitude around the basket in the Bahamas. First, they were without Anton Watson. Less than a minute into the team’s opening game against Southern Miss, Watson suffered an ankle sprain which kept him sidelined for the rest of the tournament. Second, they ran up against two very good defensive teams. According to stat-whiz Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, Michigan is the No. 10 defensive team in the country and Oregon is No. 43. Among teams on Gonzaga’s schedule this year those squads rank first and fourth in defensive efficiency.
Prior to heading to the Bahamas, Petrusev was shooting 67.3 percent from inside the arc and Timme was shooting 65.9 percent. While in the Bahamas, Petrusev shot 42.5 percent inside the arc and Timme shot 40.9 percent. Of the big men, the only one who didn’t see his efficiency fall off a cliff was Killian Tillie. He’s not only the most experienced of the group, but also recovering from knee surgery which kept him out of the first few games of the season. It makes sense that he would continue shaking off the rust as he gets a few more games under his belt.
Besides running up against very strong defensive teams, why exactly did the Zags big men struggle so much?
Gonzaga has run a ton of post-ups this season. Against Oregon and Michigan, even as shots weren’t falling, the Zags refused to abandon their bread and butter. Which is completely reasonable. The problem was their bread and butter wasn’t working. Entry passes to the post players were disrupted, which led to guys like Timme and Petrusev catching the ball in awkward positions. Once they had the ball, they were quickly double- or even triple-teamed.
In years past the Zags had big men like Przemek Karnowski and Rui Hachimura who saw the floor exceptionally well and were skilled at passing out of traffic. In the Bahamas neither Timme or Petrusev, both of whom are still young players, looked comfortable in those situations. More often than not they fought through multiple defenders and forced up contested shots or had the ball knocked away.
What’s worrying about the performance we witnessed from Gonzaga over the past few games is that there are three games on the horizon which could be even uglier.
Washington, the 20th best defensive team in the nation, hosts the Zags this Sunday. Arizona, the 50th best defensive team, hosts Gonzaga the weekend after. And then on Dec. 18 Gonzaga gets a visit from North Carolina, the No. 18 defense in the country.
All three of those teams have posted better defensive two-point percentages than Oregon and Michigan so far this season, which means they’ve been better at doing what Oregon and Michigan did to Gonzaga than Oregon and Michigan. Yikes.
If the Zags want to make it back to the Final Four this season, they’ll find themselves in must-win games against teams of this caliber come March. More pressingly, they’ll play that level of competition three times over the next couple of weeks. This is a young team with a lot of room for growth between now and March, but the immediate path from here to there looks a lot bumpier than Zag fans have come to expect over recent seasons.