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.
Sunday, October 23, 2005
Black and Gold Blowout
Despite walking against the curb-to-curb pedestrian traffic flowing out of Kinnick Stadium on my way there, I managed to slip into Carver-Hawkeye Arena just in time for tip-off of the Black and Gold Blowout. Here are a few notes -
Adam Haluska was pretty much unstoppable inside 10 feet. It's always hard to get too excited over exhibition games, but this was a nice carry-over from the end of last season. When Adam gets the ball on the block, you're pretty much guaranteed that turnaround off the backboard or two points at the line. His craftiness around the basket is part of what makes him so effective overall - when he's not shooting threes, he relies on high-percentage twos instead of 18-foot jump shots.
Greg Brunner wasn't a major factor. He's still susceptible to getting stripped when he drives the lane. It makes you wonder if his teammates just know his moves by now, or if he makes the ball that inviting to all his opponents. He did hit one three, which we should see more of this year, and he also exhibited some nice court awareness with his passing, much like he showed this summer.
Jeff Horner had the outside touch going for him, and I think he led all scorers with over 20 points (I haven't seen a box score yet). He had some really nice passes, too, so I'm sure he finished with a handful of assists. There were also none of the 25-foot heaves he favored so often last year.
Alex Thompson played as well as anyone on the gold team (him, Reed, Henderson, Thomas). The ball movement was generally pretty pathetic on that team, and players often had to rely on one-on-one moves to score any points. Alex had plenty of offense to offer - he had the moves inside and the jump shot outside, and was automatic at the line. He also plays with a fire that reminds fans of that Ryan Bowen-type scrappiness. If Saturday was any indication, he should be in line for a lot of minutes at both forward spots this year.
Doug Thomas had his two signature dunks and a baseline jump shot, but the novelty has kind of worn off for me. He's still one of the Big Ten's best rebounders, so he'll find his way onto the court.
Erek Hansen actually looked marginally thicker when he took the court, but he still looked as uncoordinated as ever, dropping passes and booting balls out of bounds.
Mike Henderson probably ended up with a decent point total, but his point guard skills are still rather unremarkable. He rarely puts his teammates in a good/better position for a shot, and the offense stalls when he gets the ball on the perimeter and starts dribbling. His ballfake seems to work, though, as it got him an open jump shot at least twice.
Tony Freeman didn't have a lot of opportunities to contribute, since he played with Haluska, Brunner, and Horner, but he did put in a few fastbreak layups. I remember one bad pass where he tried to hit a wing that was too far away, so the defender stepped in a took it the other way, but there weren't a lot of mistakes from the freshman.
Carlton Reed is probably as quick as anyone, but he just doesn't seem like he'll be an effective scorer anytime soon. He never gets a shot inside 15 feet, so his game will be reliant on his streaky shooting.
Seth Gorney looked winded pretty early on and couldn't do much of anything offensively.
And if you're still reading, the Black team won, though that was pretty much assumed going in. Next game is the exhibition opener on November 3 against Brock University of Canada.
Update - I guess Brunner and Thomas played better than I first thought. A quick scan of the box score reveals that both had double-doubles, though Doug did have five turnovers. Alford had plenty of postive words for Thompson and Thomas after the game, via Hawk Central.