Gonzaga’s difference is their defense

Johnathan Williams (3) seen here defending Xavier Musketeers forward Sean O’Mara (54) during the second half of the West Region final, can guard all five positions on the floor. (Photo: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

By PAUL GOTHAM

The difference between great and elite can be measured by the smallest of margins. For the Gonzaga Bulldogs that number is less than nine.

Mark Few’s Zags have reached the NCAA Tournament in each of his previous 17 years as head coach. Saturday they take the court in the program’s first appearance at the Final Four. Overcoming that final hurdle can be represented by Gonzaga’s defensive efficiency numbers.

Gonzaga has been top 30 or better in adjusted defensive efficiency (estimated number of points allowed per 100 possessions) for the past five seasons. A year ago, the Zags were 27th in the land at 94.4. They enter Saturday’s matchup with South Carolina number one in the country at 85.8 per KenPom.

“The rim protection that we have this year is different than anything we’ve been able to put out there,” Few said earlier this week referring to the inside presence of 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski which allows Gonzaga to not have to use double teams in the post. “We’re not forced into rotations.”

Combine that with the athleticism of Zach Collins and Killian Tillie, and the Bulldogs lead the country limiting opponents to 39.8 percent inside the arc. They are fourth in the nation holding opponents to 29.3 percent behind the arc. Their block percentage of 11.1 is 80th in the country and nearly two points better than the national average of 9.2

Few, though, points to Johnathan Williams III for making the biggest impact on Gonzaga’s ability to limit opponents.

“He can guard one through five,” Few said of the 6-foot-9 forward. “Very comfortable with him guarding the best perimeter on the (opposing) team or best forward on the (opposing) team.

“The other night (regional final against Xavier) we got in massive foul trouble, we had to move him to the five. He was in the middle of our zone and he was guarding the other center the other night. So just to have somebody that versatile and you’re so comfortable with, you can switch ball screens and things like that, it makes a heck of a difference.”

Gonzaga took a Xavier club which had been shooting nearly 53 percent in three NCAA Tournament games and held the Musketeers to 22 of 62 (35 percent) from the floor.

“They’re big. They play disciplined on defense,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “I thought in the first half them going to zone bothered us, and it was sort of a back-and-forth game until they went to zone.”

Gonzaga limited Xavier’s first option in Trevon Bluiett. The junior guard, who came into the contest averaging 25 points on 52.2 percent shooting over three NCAA Tournament, finished with 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting in Gonzaga’s 83-59 win.

“They’re big and they’re long, so it makes it tough to score on the inside, and when we don’t get a lot of shots to fall from the outside that we need,” Bluiett said after the loss. “They were just you know locked in. They were disciplined defensive type of team. That’s why they’re No. 1 when it comes to defensive stats.”

In the second half of Saturday’s West Region final, Gonzaga held Xavier to 8 of 30 (26.7 percent) from the floor including 1 of 11 (9.1 percent) behind the arc.

“We cleaned up some things,” Few said after the win. “I think we’ve been really good in ball screen coverage and we were screwing up a couple of ball screen coverages early. And once we were able to get into half, draw it on the board, show it to them, they did a great job of coming out and executing. We made a couple of tweaks in the zone as far as where we wanted to press up on.”

Stingy meet Stingy

South Carolina ranks second in the country with an adjusted defensive efficiency of 87.7. The Gamecocks present a unique challenge in they create a high number of turnovers (25.4 percent/fourth in the country) while limiting opponents to 45.3 percent (29th nationally).Usually teams that create a high number of turnovers are susceptible to undefended layups. For example, West Virginia is number one in the land forcing miscues 27.6 percent of the time. The Mountaineers rank 60th in 2-pt field goal percentage at 46.5 and 187th in 3-point shooting at 35.3 (quick looks after breaking press).

The Zags best defense might start with their offense which turns the ball over just 16.1 percent of the time. Limiting South Carolina’s chances for easy buckets in transition will be important.

“I don’t know how we match up with them,” South Carolina head coach Frank Martin said this week. “They’re real good. I’ve gotten to know Fewey off the court, and he’s as competitive as anyone I’ve been around. But he’s got an even keel to him.

“When you see his team play, they’re as competitive as anyone out there, but if you cover the scoreboard, you wouldn’t be able to tell who is up or who is down. If you just watch the game. Because they play every play the same way. They don’t make mistakes. There’s no bad body language. So if they’re down six or up six, it’s the same team. It’s not — their sense of urgency is the same way for every play.”

Nigel Williams-Goss leads four Bulldogs in double figures with 16.7 points. The junior guard hands out 4.6 assists. Williams scores 10.3 and grabs a team-high 6.6 rebounds per game. Karnowski averages 12.2 points and 5.8 rebounds. Jordan Matthews scores 10.7.

Sindarius Thornwell scores 21.6  and hauls in 7.2 boards to lead South Carolina.

“His kind of whole package is very dangerous,” Few said. “Just kind of the intensity that he brings to the game. He can hurt you on the glass. He can hurt you shooting it. He can hurt you off the bounce. He gets to the free-throw line a lot.

“He’s going to be a really, really, a hard guard, and again it’s going to take probably a number of our guys, and we’re going to have to obviously shadow his direction. But, yeah, he’s definitely going to be a handful.”

PJ Dozier adds 13.8 points. Duane Notice scores 10.2 and Chris Silva chips in 10.1.

A 6:09 tip time is scheduled.

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