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Weekend Homework: Zags' thin margin

12/27/2013

There are lots of ways to play offense in the game of basketball, countless characteristics on which to hang one's proverbial hat. Few are as pure and pleasurable as Gonzaga's.

The Bulldogs play fast, decisive, intelligent offensive basketball. Their possessions are short, and usually effective. Their sets place a primacy on spacing, on the exploration of angles. Their personnel -- led by guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, two of the most efficient offensive players in the country -- averages 42.2 percent from 3 and 54.8 percent from 2-point territory. The Zags don't dominate on the offensive glass, and they're not at all reliant on fouls to create points.

What results is a just-as-effective alternative to the kind of ruthlessly physical basketball that the NCAA has so famously attempted to discourage this season: fluid movement, sharp passing, lights-out shooting, few stoppages. When Mark Few's team is in possession of the ball, it is -- and this is not an exaggeration -- beautiful.

That's the good news. You already know what comes next.

On Saturday, Gonzaga, for all its rhythmic offensive beauty, will begin West Coast Conference play with exactly zero impressive wins. (Depending on your thoughts about Arkansas, anyway. I'll stick with "exactly zero" for now.)

It will also begin with two rather rough losses. The first, an 84-79 loss to Dayton in Maui, cost the Zags a chance to play Baylor and/or Syracuse; what looked like an emergent Dayton team at the time since has lost to Illinois State and USC. The latter, last Saturday's 72-62 loss to Kansas State in Wichita, Kan., came to a struggling Wildcats bunch with a season-opening home loss to Northern Colorado and a neutral-court defeat to Charlotte on its docket.

What those losses say about those teams, and what price those results respectively will exact in March, is a matter of muddy educated guessing. But they do say something unequivocal about Gonzaga: The Zags don't guard all that well. Dayton scored 1.18 points per possession in its win, Kansas State 1.20. The Flyers were (are) a good offensive group, but even after K-State's outburst the Wildcats still are just the nation's 198th most efficient offense.

That fact is probably best explained by the same things that make Gonzaga's offense so thrilling. Few has plenty of guards and, in forward Sam Dower, an old-school step-out big man. But he has just one true interior defender, center Przemek Karnowski. Karnowski is an excellent defensive rebounder and a good shot-blocker, but he is the only player even attempting the latter, and he's averaging five fouls every 40 minutes. Combine that personnel imbalance with the Zags' inability to force turnovers, long defensive possessions, and second-chance woes (Gonzaga opponents have scored 1.26 points per possession on offensive rebounds to date, per Synergy), and you end up with a very average defense. (And, it should be noted, one that suited Kansas State's style just fine.)

Such are the causes behind Gonzaga's current predicament: Opening conference play Saturday against Santa Clara (8 p.m. ET, ESPNU) with one of its softer nonconference résumés in recent seasons. The WCC isn't what it was back in the Zags' post-Cinderella, budding-hegemon days. But it is still riddled with potential bad losses around every corner, with only Saint Mary's and BYU to even slightly bolster the résumé. A few slips here and there, and it's possible -- not probable, but possible -- that the 2013 No. 1 seed could miss the tournament entirely for the first time since 1998. The Zags are worth watching, for all kinds of reasons.