Gonzaga’s defense returns to top form

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When Gonzaga traveled across the country to face North Carolina on Dec. 15 in Chapel Hill, it did so short-handed. 

Junior forward Killian Tillie still had yet to step on a court this season, and backup point guard Geno Crandall was out with an injury. 

The Zags, who had lost their No. 1 ranking after falling to Tennessee in a tight game six days earlier,  had few answers for the Tar Heels in a 103-90 loss. But it probably was the Bulldogs’ most important game this season. 

They had been exposed, and the players knew it. 

“I feel like through stretches of those games we were really soft,” sophomore guard Zach Norvell Jr. said after the game, according to the (Spokane, Wash.) Spokesman-Review. “We didn’t really put our best foot forward on the defensive end and we weren’t locked in mentally.” 

Gonzaga, which had reinvented itself as a defensive force over the previous few seasons, allowed North Carolina to shoot 54.7 percent from the field, including 13 of 25 from 3-point range. The Tar Heels had 14 offensive rebounds — at an otherworldly 46.7 percent clip. 

“We knew they crashed (the boards) hard,” Zags forward Brandon Clarke said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t have been ready for that. A lot of that is on me, so I need to work on that personally.” 

After the loss in Chapel Hill, Gonzaga had the No. 1 offense in the country, according to KenPom.com, but it was No. 63 on defense — not exactly elite. 

Flash forward 77 days to Saturday. 

The Zags used a dominant second half to put away Saint Mary’s 69-55 and complete a perfect 16-0 West Coast Conference regular season — the fifth of those during head coach Mark Few’s 20 years in Spokane, Wash. 

Gonzaga, 29-2 and back at No. 1 the past few weeks, enters this week’s WCC Tournament at Orleans Arena on a 20-game win streak. The Bulldogs blew away their WCC competition by an average of 27 points — probably the biggest margin since UNLV’s 1991 team — a feat made more impressive by the relative strength of the conference this season. 

The WCC, which had a winning record against the Pac-12 this season, is the No. 8 conference in the nation, according to KenPom — right below the Pac-12 and above the MAC and Mountain West — and that’s with Portland (323 KenPom) weighing it down. 

While Saint Mary’s had an uncharacteristic 11 losses during the regular season, the Gaels are 34th at KenPom and still in contention for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid — although it will take at least an appearance in the WCC final to get in. The Zags and Gaels both get double-byes into Monday’s semifinals. 

Gonzaga is probably looking at a rematch against either BYU or San Francisco — likely third-round foes on Saturday. Saint Mary’s could face 20-game winner Loyola Marymount on Monday. 

But the outlook is not good for the potential usurpers: Gonzaga, which see Tillie return to action and has a shot at the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, saved their best for the toughest competition this WCC season, beating the Gaels, Cougars and Dons by a combined 169 points in six games.  


Grand Canyon at Utah Valley: The Wolverines haven’t lost to anyone not named New Mexico State since Jan. 5, and the Aggies handed them their only home loss of the season. UTAH VALLEY


Duke at North Carolina: Obviously, this one comes with a big question: Will Zion Williamson play? Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski has hinted that his star freshman is very close to returning. Here’s betting he doesn’t miss Round 2. DUKE  

Texas Tech at Iowa State: On the morning of the Red Raiders 79-63 loss at Kansas, Chris Beard’s team was No. 99 in offensive efficiency. Since then they’ve topped 80 points five times during an eight-game win streak, raising that number to 17. Iowa State, on the other hand, has dropped four of six. TEXAS TECH and OVER 

Last week: 2-2

Season: 29-25-2

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About the Author

Ched Whitney

Ched Whitney has been a journalist in Las Vegas since 1994. He worked for the Las Vegas Review-Journal for 18 years, where he was the paper’s art director for 12. Since becoming a freelancer in 2012, his work has appeared at ESPN.com, AOL, The Seattle Times and UNLV Magazine, among others. ​

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