Gonzaga rides swarming defense into NCAA final
AP Basketball Writer
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Gonzaga swingman Johnathan Williams bumped and bruised Sindarius Thornwell throughout the Final Four, shadowing his every step, preventing the South Carolina star from getting the ball, much less a good shot.
The same scenario played out a week earlier in the Sweet 16, only it was Nigel Williams-Goss hounding Jevon Carter, preventing West Virginia’s best player from getting a good look with the game on the line.
Once known only for their proficient offense, the Zags have added a dose of gritty defense anchored by two 7-footers, a combination that has put them within reach of the program’s first national championship. Gonzaga faces North Carolina in the title game on Monday night.
“It starts with our rim protection and our versatility,” Gonzaga guard Jordan Mathews said. “All of our guards can switch onto different guys. What makes us special is our ability to contest on every shot.”
Defense has always been the element that has held Gonzaga back.
A fire-on-all-cylinders offense helped lead the Zags to 19 straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, eight times to the Sweet 16. But as they climbed farther into the bracket, the ability to get stops on defense often led to their demise.
That changed this season.
With the two 7-footers guarding the rim and a swarm of versatile, athletic perimeter players, Gonzaga now has the defense to complement its high-powered offense.
The Zags finished No. 1 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency this season and have shut down team after team through the NCAA Tournament.
Gonzaga is holding teams to 62.1 points per game in the tournament, 24 percent shooting from 3-point range and only one team — Northwestern at 41 percent — has shot better than 40 percent.
“To be successful in our game is about taking things away from people and they do a terrific job of taking things away,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “Then they’ve got that great size inside, not just size, but they’re good. And they limit you to one shot.”
That size starts with Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga’s center.
The 7-foot-1, 300-pound Polish big man gets his share of blocked shots, but alters so many more. Karnowski often doesn’t have to jump to block or affect a shot and posting him up is like trying to back down the Empire State Building.
Gonzaga’s second 7-footer, freshman Zach Collins, may be the best NBA prospect left in the tournament and he doesn’t even start for the Zags. Agile and athletic, he can swoop in from seemingly nowhere to swat a shot, as he did six times in the Final Four win over South Carolina on Saturday.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few had both of them on the floor together for stretches of the Final Four, giving Gonzaga a double last line of defense that helped shut down the Gamecocks after they made a big second-half run.
“Zach makes it look like you have a clear lane to the basket, but he’s right there,” Mathews said. “The different looks we can give you and our attention to detail, too, is one of our biggest strengths.”
Having bigs this big gives Gonzaga’s already-active perimeter defenders the freedom to play more aggressively.
They never want to get beat, but knowing there’s a 7-footer or two waiting under the basket allows them to overplay their man and passing lanes. Gonzaga used its attacking perimeter defense to create numerous early turnovers by South Carolina while building a 14-point lead in the national semifinals.
“We have rim protection and I feel like I can gamble a little, though I don’t want to gamble too much,” said Williams, who often guards the opposing team’s best scorer. “You know if you get beat, those guys in the back are there to pick you up.”
Gonzaga’s rotation also is filled with players who can guard multiple positions, allowing the Zags to change looks or switch without worrying about mismatches.
Against South Carolina’s Thornwell, Gonzaga started with 6-foot-4 Mathews guarding him, switched to 6-9 Williams, even had Williams-Goss, their point guard, on him at times. The Zags used their quickness to effectively deny Thornwell the ball and alternated between trailing him on screens, fighting over screens and switching.
Thornwell, the tournament’s leading scorer at 26 points per game to that point, had 15 points on 4-of-12 shooting.
Against West Virginia, Carter almost singlehandedly kept the Mountaineers in it, hitting one difficult shot after another. In the chaotic closing seconds, Williams-Goss was practically in Carter’s jersey as he dribbled around trying to get off a tying 3-pointer. He missed two shots and the clock expired before West Virginia could get another off after a double team by Williams forced Carter to give the ball up.
“Sometimes our defense, it has kind of a cumulative effect on you,” Few said.
It has all season, putting the Zags on the cusp of history.