Analyzing Gonzaga’s Defensive Play Against WCC Foes

Przemek Karnowski (24, white) has helped the Zags be one of the best squads defensively in the WCC

Mark Few has always earned his reputation as an “offensive” coach. Regularly, his teams rank in the top 20-30 in terms of offensive efficiency according to Ken Pom’s ratings. He has produced offensively efficient players from the well-known like Adam Morrison and Kelly Olynyk to the lesser-known JP Batista and Kyle Bankhead. This year, the Zags continue to be efficient in the offensive end, as they are rated 10th in the nation with a 117.4 offensive rating this year (which has helped them be rated as the 18th best team in the nation according to KenPom).

But, the Zags wouldn’t be sitting alone on top of the WCC now with a 4-0 record if they were just good offensively. Much to its credit, there are a lot of good offensive teams in the WCC this season. St. Mary’s has continued their tradition of producing great offense under coach Randy Bennett (though he is sitting out the first 5 games of conference play due to a recruiting violation issue), as they are posting a rating of 116.5, 13th best in the nation. San Francisco and BYU have also been solid squads on the offensive end, as they are posting ratings of 111.0 and 110.4, good for 48th and 57th, respectively. If there’s one thing the WCC doesn’t lack, it’s an ability to score points (only San Diego is not rated in the top-150 in terms of offensive efficiency).

What has separated the Zags in conference play so far has been their defensive performance. Despite missing Gary Bell for three games and Sam Dower battling through injuries, the Zags have posted extremely stellar efficiency numbers on the defensive end so far in WCC play (just accounting WCC games). The Zags lead in six of the nine defensive categories on Ken Pom.com, and in two of them they finish second. They are the top team currently in terms of effective field goal against (39.2 percent), turnovers caused (19.4 percent), offensive rebounds prevented (22.3 percent), 2-point percentage against (35.8 percent), block percentage (18.2 percent) and Adjusted Defensive rating (82.2). To put into context how good their start has been from a numbers standpoint, their Adjusted Defensive rating is 19.7 points better than the second-best team (BYU), their eFG percentage prevented is 5.6 percent better than the next best team (Pepperdine) and their block percentage is 4.7 percent better than the next best team (Portland). The Zags have been absolutely dominating teams on the defensive end so far in conference play, and if you don’t necessarily buy into the advanced numbers, you can just look at the scores: against two teams rated in the top-40 in Adjusted Offense (USF and St. Mary’s), the Zags held them to a combined 92 points and 0.60 Points Per Possession and 0.80 points per possession, respectively. Additionally, against St. Mary’s, the Zags held one of the WCC’s best and most efficient players, Brad Waldow to only five points and a season low 48 offensive rating (his previous low this year was 103 against George Mason).

Yes, the Zags’ numbers are amazing. However, what makes it more amazing is that they’re succeeding in an area where they were supposed to be weak this season. They lost their top-two post players (Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris) from a year ago, and many pundits (including myself), figured the front court was going to be an issue for the Zags this season. While the scoring and offensive production has been inconsistent, defensively it has been a strength for them. Their 2 point percentage against is 5.1 percent better than the next best squad, and one of the reasons for that has been the defensive play of center Przemek Karnowski.

I tweeted this yesterday after the game:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js
Karnowski has been a bit inconsistent this year on the offensive side (only a 100.2 Adjusted Offensive rating, compounded by a 48 percent free throw percentage and a 100.0 FT rate; lots of chances and low percentages don’t result in efficiency). On the defensive side of the ball though, he has given the Zags a true defensive presence that the Zags haven’t had before. At 7-1 and 305 pounds, Karnowski is a load in the post and makes it not only tough for opposing WCC post players to get position on him, but he is effective in taking away driving lanes for WCC guards as well. That was especially evident against USF and St. Mary’s as not only did he shut down an elite offensive player (Waldow), but he also provided a wall for the Dons and Gaels to get to the hoop, leading to the sub-par performances each team experienced in Spokane.

Additionally, the subtraction of Olynyk and Harris, while devastating on the offensive end has actually been good on the defensive end, as Karnowski may be a better post presence defensively than either of them, especially Olynyk (who was the true center last year). Numbers wise Karnowski bests Olynyk in terms of block percentage (8.6 to Olynyk’s 5.1) and defensive rebounding percentage (24.2 to Olynyk’s 20.5). But even on the tape, Karnowski shows excellent instincts for a post man, as he knows what to do well and understands how to use his body as a wall to protect the hoop, even if he may not be the most athletic big man in the WCC. One of the problems for Olynyk was that he would get out of position at times on the defensive end, which would not only hurt in terms of allowing points at the rim, but also make the Zags vulnerable to allowing second chance shots. That hasn’t been the case with Karnowski this year. He stays his ground well and is able to do just enough to get in the kind of defensive position to take away easy shots in the paint (something you couldn’t always say out Olynyk). And, to make things better, Karnowski doesn’t sacrifice rebounding position to defend shots, and this has been a reason why the Zags have been much better at preventing offensive rebounds this year than a season ago (32.2 percent offensive rebounds prevented rate, third best in the WCC).

That being said, Karnowski is not alone in terms of helping the defensive effectiveness of this Zags squad. With the Polish center taking away the middle with his solid frame, strong defensive instincts and ability to limit second chances shots (he has a team high 24.2 defensive rebounding percentage, 63rd in the nation), his presence has complemented the Zags’ perimeter defenders nicely. The biggest surprise contributor has been 6-5 wing man Kyle Draginis who has seen an uptick in playing time since Bell’s injury. Draginis has the length and speed to frustrate opposing guard, and it has been obvious that the defense has improved since he has earned more minutes in the absence of Bell. Furthermore, his 2.5 steal percentage has been a nice surprise for a team that leads the WCC in turnovers caused percentage. Of course, Draginis has not been the sole reason for their superb play on the perimeter defensively. David Stockton, though out matched at times physically, continues to be a pesky defensive player, as he is second on the team in steal rate at 3.3 percent. Gerard Coleman, who was buried for a while on the bench until he earned more minutes with Bell’s injury, leads the team in steal percentage (3.6 percent) and has the kind of wing span that belies his size (6-4) and makes him a matchup problem at times for opposing guards. And Angel Nunez may be the biggest wild card of all, as he has the size and length to guard smaller forwards on the perimeter or small post players in the paint (though strength-wise, that is still a question). The bottom line? The Zags have all kinds of weapons on the perimeter, and the presence of Karnowski and a healthy Dower down low make those wing players able to be more aggressive on the defensive end, knowing they have that presence in the paint taking away the drive at the basket.

At the end of the 2006 season, it seemed like Few was at a crossroads in terms of what to emphasize defensively as a coach. Though he has produced good defensive squads his first years, in 2005, they ranked as the 4th best team in the WCC in terms of defensive efficiency and they rated as the third-best team in the WCC in 2006. The reason? He had excellent offensive players in Adam Morrison and JP Batista and it seemed that the Zags went into contests with the idea that they could simply outscore and provide just another defense to win. There was some success with this model, as they did reach the Sweet 16 in 2006 and lost to a team that eventually went to the NCAA Championship in 2006 (UCLA). Instead though of preferring that style, he has recruited more defensively talented and inclined players since the Morrison-Batista era (they haven’t ranked below second in defensive rating in the WCC since 2006) and that is still relevant today, even with the WCC offensively probably at its most talented in comparison to years past. The Zags are not just able to scrap by defensively, but they have showed that they are able to dominate squads (and good offensive squads) in the WCC. In a conference where there is much more parity than in years past, the Zags emphasis and ability on defense this year may be the chief reason why they rise above the pack for another consecutive season.

Advertisements

Recruit Report: Josh Perkins, 6-3, 185 pounds, Gonzaga commit

One of the highest profile recruits coming into the WCC next year is Gonzaga commit Josh Perkins out of Huntington Prep High School in Huntington, West Va. If the name of the school sounds familiar it should be, as former high profile recruits Andrew Wiggins and OJ Mayo played high school ball there during their senior seasons (Huntington has effectively become the next Oak Hill Academy, which was famous for getting senior transfers from all over the nation; the list include Carmelo Anthony, Josh Smith and DeSagna Diop to name a few). Originally from the Denver, Colorado-area, Perkins looks to be the kind of player that could continue Gonzaga’s great tradition of producing effective guards.

ESPN currently rates Perkins as the 38th best recruit in the nation according to their Top-100, and also considered UCLA and Minnesota before signing with the Zags. Even though Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell are most likely going to return for the senior seasons, Perkins looks like he could be a good sixth man off the bench next year for the Zags as a guard, especially with longtime and popular point guard David Stockton graduating this year.

What they are saying about Perkins

From Rivals.com (graded him a four-star recruit and 46th best in the nation)

“A very flashy playmaker from Colorado who sees open teammates pretty much anywhere on the floor. Whips passes with either hand and makes plays in transition. On offense he favors pull-up jumpers and sometimes settles. Opponents who can really move laterally can bother him.”

From Scout.com (graded him a four-star recruit and the fifth-best point guard in the nation)

“More than anything, Perkins is a sensational passer. He makes the difficult ones look easy and can make the easy ones difficult, but his abilities in this regard are indisputable. Perkins also is a talented scorer. He doesn’t draw as much praise for that for that ability and understandably so, but he knocks down three-pointers on the high side of screens and shoots well setting himself up off the dribble.” 

From Slipper Still Fits (Gonzaga SB Nation Blog)

“Perkins is undoubtedly one of the highest rated recruits to ever commit to Gonzaga.  He had offers from outstanding programs across the country, most notably UCLA, Minnesota, Connecticut, Arizona, and Stanford.  He received significant interest from Kentucky, Syracuse, and Kansas as well.  He is currently a top-30 prospect on both Scout and Rivals which is similar to where Austin Daye was rated and slightly higher than where Matt Bouldin checked in at when he arrived at Gonzaga.”

Catholic Coast Hoops Quick Analysis

When you watch Perkins on tape, he is just a phenomenal passer. He simply has an uncanny ability to find the open man with extraordinary quickness and accuracy. If anything, he reminds me a lot of a taller Sebastian Telfair with his ability to handle the ball, drive and find his teammates with ease (and I do NOT use that comparison frugally; I watched Jonathan Hock’s “Through the Fire” like a dozen times). While I do not have stats on his current shooting stats, scouts rate him as a solid shooter, and his form looks good on tape, as he is able to pull up and shoot the jumper quickly when his team is in transition. Scout.com also raved about his 3-point shooting, rating it as one of his strengths as a player along with his passing and court vision.

The Slipper Still Fits, which has been following him in person for a good while (one of the main writers of the blog lived in Denver and used to see him when he was still going to high school in Denver), remarked he was one of the highest profile recruits since Austin Daye (Daye was one of the first truly “High Profile National Recruits” the Zags signed, though some argue Jeremy Pargo holds that honor since he was a pretty highly rated recruit of Chicago). I sort of agree with the assessment, though I think Kevin Pangos and Przemek Karnowski would have been rated higher had they been “American” recruits (both guys played for the international squad in the Nike Hoops Summit their senior years, which is just slightly below the McDonald’s All American Classic in terms of prestige). Nonetheless, Perkins is a legitimate recruit, and much like Daye back in 2007, I believe Perkins will be making plenty of buzz when he arrives on campus next Fall (or technically Summer, since most basketball recruits come to take classes in the summer to get a head start). Because of Pangos and Bell’s presence next year, I don’t think Perkins will break out as a star or have the kind of immediate impact those two had when they arrived. That being said, I think he’ll be a key factor in the Zags’ rotation his rookie campaign and earn a sizable chunk of playing time that will develop him to have his true breakout in his sophomore season.

Were Gonzaga and St. Mary’s Exposed After Weekend Losses?

Even with the addition of BYU and Pacific, the WCC race within the past decade has come between Gonzaga and St. Mary’s. Mark Few and Randy Bennett have been the staples of coaching success in the WCC, and on a regular basis the two schools have produced their fair share of talent (Adam Morrison, Austin Daye, Kelly Olynyk, Omar Samhan, Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova just to name a few) which has resulted in a slew of victories and NCAA Tournament appearances for both programs.

That being said, both teams came into this season with a lot of question marks. The Zags lost mainstay forward Elias Harris and glue guys Mike Hart and Guy Landry Edi to graduation, and saw Olynyk leave a year early (can’t really blame him) to become a first round draft pick by the Boston Celtics. As for the Gaels, not only did they lose all-conference stud Dellavedova, but they also lost big man Mitchell Young to graduation. While both teams returned a lot of key pieces from their successful 2012-2013 squads, they also lost some key players whose productions would have to be replaced in order to replicate last year’s successes and be competitive not just in the WCC, but at the national level again in 2013-2014.

How have the results been so far? So far good for both squads. Entering Saturday’s game, the Zags came to Wichita with a 10-1 record to face a talented, but inconsistent Kansas State squad. As for the Gaels, they were away for the holidays, traveling to Hawaii to take on South Carolina, another inconsistent squad that was coming off head scratching losses to Manhattan and USC Upstate in consecutive games, in the first round of the Diamond Head Classic (another interesting subplot was if the Gaels took care of business, they could have faced Boises State, who are coached by former Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice).

Contribute it to the travel or Christmas break or whatever, but things did not go as well as planned for both squads. The Zags struggled against an athletic and scrappy Wildcats team, and without the services of big man Sam Dower, who went down in the first half with a hip injury, the Zags’ lack of size was greatly exposed on both ends of the court. As for the Gaels, they were unable to stop the hot-shooting Gamecocks defensively, and they ended up getting surprised by a team that looked to be a bottom feeder for the second straight year in the SEC.

Is this a cause for concern for Gonzaga and St. Mary’s fans? Or is this another case of the “Christmas break letdown” blues? (This has been the case for Gonzaga a lot in the past decade). Let’s take a deeper look into both games:

Gonzaga versus Kansas State (72-64)

For the year, Kansas State has struggled to find offensive consistency for the year. Their adjusted offensive rating according to Ken Pomeroy is 102.2 (roughly 1.02 points per possession), and their effective field goal percentage is 46 percent, 283rd best in the nation. Their inability to find consistent offense explains why they have some letdown losses to teams like Northern Colorado (at home) and Charlotte (neutral court). However, if you want to give credit to second-year coach Bruce Weber (and I don’t like to give him credit for anything the way he drove that Illinois program into the ground), you have to applaud his ability to keep the Wildcats solid as a defensive squad. This year, their 94.3 adjusted defensive rating is 20th best in the nation, and they excel in terms of contesting and forcing bad shots and turnovers, as they are holding teams this year to a 45.1 effective field goal percentage (44th best in the nation) and have a turnovers forced percentage of 21.9 (27th best in the nation). The big story was this: could the sweet-shooting Zags succeed against a K State team that held teams in check on the perimeter and from beyond the arc (the Wildcats are holding teams to a 25.8 percent three point percentage for the year, 4th best in the nation)?

Well, Kansas State succeeded on the defensive end for the most part. Sans the performance of Kevin Pangos (more on him later), Drew Barnham and the limited performance of Sam Dower before he went out with injury, the Zags were immensely poor on the offensive end. While Karnowski shot well from the field (5-of-6), his 0-for-6 performance from the charity stripe hurt the Zags as he finished with an offensive rating of 92 for the game, according to Ken Pom. David Stockton and Kyle Draginis also provide mediocre performances on the offensive end, as they finished with offensive ratings of 92 and 90, respectively. But the worst offender of the game? Gary Bell, who has showed some strong consistency this year in his junior season, posted a rating of 64, as he struggled from beyond the arc, missing some key three point shots down the stretch and finishing 1-of-7 from the field with a mere 3 points. The Zags for the game finished with only 1.03 points per possession, greatly down from their 1.16 season average (which went down from that game, so it was higher but I don’t have the number yet). Kansas State needed to shut down the Zags on the offensive end to have a shot in this game, and when Dower went down, the Zags’s lack of size (minus-2.0 effective height for the year, 299th in the nation, and that is WITH Dower) and presence in the post was greatly exposed and the Wildcats were able to put more pressure on the perimeter with only Karnowski as the legitimate threat in the paint.

However, another story for the game was the Wildcats’ offensive breakout. Kansas State averaged 1.20 points per possession in this game, helped by 52.8 percent shooting on their two point shots (though they continued to struggle from beyond the arc, as they only made 5 out of 18). Furthermore, they were able to out rebound the Zags on the offensive end (10-8 on the offensive glass), get to the free throw line more as well (25 to the Zags’ 15), and they turned the ball over less than the Zags (4-to-12). Considering the Zags lost all four factors of this game, the fact that they only lost by eight is pretty remarkable. Forward Thomas Gipson proved to be the thorn for the Zags individually, as he scored 14 points on 6 of 8 shooting, good for an offensive rating of 163 in only 21 minutes.

So, should Zags fans hit the panic button yet? Well, it all depends on the health of Dower. X-Rays have come back negative on Dower’s hip, but it’ll be interesting to see how he recovers and how this will affect his play for the year. While the Zags have transfer forward Angel Nunez eligible, he did not play in the Wildcats game, and it’ll be interesting to see if he’ll get an increased role with Dower’s health a question over the coming weeks. That being said, I think this was the perfect storm game for the Zags, as the loss of Dower, combined with the rare offensive outburst of the Wildcats put the chips stacked against the Zags from the beginning. As I said before, the fact that they only lost by eight, despite losing all four factors of the game is pretty remarkable. I will say this: Pangos is certainly the backbone of this team, and I think it’s his “WCC Player of the Year” award to lose this year. Despite getting shut out in the first half, Pangos made the necessary adjustments in the second half and finished with 14 points, 6 assists and an offensive rating of 120. Pangos is proving he’s “The Man” on this Gonzaga team, and I think the confidence he got from this game will bode well for the Zags going forward, since they aren’t going to face a lot of teams that are as big a threat defensively as the Wildcats in WCC play.

St. Mary’s vs. South Carolina (78-71)

The big issue with Randy Bennett’s squads in the past is that they have played soft non-conference schedules. This year has been no different, as the Gaels have only played one game away from home (Boise State) and have not played anyone in the Top-50 according to Ken Pom’s ratings. So, while the 9-0 record was nice, many wondered how the Gaels would stack up against the Zags in conference play, since their record was padded by such an easy early schedule.

I expected a letdown of some sort from the Gaels in this tournament, but I did not expect it to come at the hands of South Carolina, a team that was coming off brutal losses to Manhattan and USC Upstate (rated 84th and 154th, respectively by Ken Pom). However, the Gaels, while again efficient on the offensive end (12th in the nation in offensive efficiency), have displayed inconsistency this year on the defensive end, as evidenced by their 101.1 defensive rating, 128th in the nation. The Gaels don’t cause a lot of turnovers (only an 18 percent turnover rate, 208th in the nation) and they don’t get a lot of steals (7.9 steal rate, 252nd in the nation), so they rely on their presence and ability to force bad shots in order to be effective on the defensive side of the ball. It has worked for the most part, as teams are only shooting an effective field goal percentage of 47.1, so when the Gaels are able to settle down defensively in the half court, they do show some ability on the defensive end to prevent points on possessions.

However, for whatever reason, the Gamecocks came lighting it up in Hawaii, as they shot 58.5 percent on their two points shots, and four of seven from beyond the arc. The offensive performance was a surprise for the Gamecocks, as they were shooting a woefully bad 44.9 on their two points shots this year, and post an overall effective field goal percentage of 46.5. And yet, the Gamecocks were able to shot almost 14 percent higher than their season average on two point shots, which lead to them scoring 1.24 points per possession against the Gaels. Surprisingly, the Gaels didn’t slouch on the offensive end, as they averaged 1.13 points per possession thanks to the performances of Stephen Holt, Beau Levesque and James Walker, who posted offensive ratings of 137, 124 and 142, respectively. Waldow also scored a team-high 20 points, though his 112 offensive rating and 28 percent possession percentage made his performance less impressive to the other three.

So where did the Gaels go wrong? While the Gamecocks did get to the line more, they didn’t make it count, as evidenced by their 62.1 percentage from the charity stripe. One of the big factors had to be on the offensive glass, as even though the Gamecocks had less for the game, they had a higher percentage of offensive rebounds (44 percent) to the Gaels (38.2 percent). Add that with a superior shooting day for the Gamecocks, and the Gaels, despite playing effectively on the offensive end, just weren’t able to pull this one off. Guards Sindarious Thornwell and Duane Notice had effective games against the Gaels’ perimeter players, as they scored 13 and 11 points, respectively (good for ratings of 129 and 183). Additionally, they got excellent production off the bench from 6-11 big man Laimonas Chatkevicius (12 points 7 rebounds, 119 rating) and guard Brenton Williams, who hit two key threes in the game. This was a stark contrast to the Gaels, as they got limited production from their bench in this game, as only guard Kerry Carter had much of an impact as a reserve, and even he struggled to get going in this game (91 rating, 5 points).

Much like Kansas State against the Zags, the Gamecocks outplayed their usual output on the offensive end, and that proved to be the Gaels’ undoing, especially since they are not a team that generates a lot of turnovers on the defensive end (they depend more on shutting down opponents and limiting second chance shots). The Gaels are not a very deep team, as they only got 12 minutes this game from their other bench players other than Carter (who had 36), and their bench only has accounted for 24 percent of game minutes for the year, 322nd in the nation. This will be interesting to see come WCC play, for the Gaels could be in trouble if key players get into foul trouble (which they have avoided for the most part this year). One through Five, the Gaels can play with anyone, and their ability on the offensive end is for real as well. But the perimeter depth (though certainly not front court depth) of Gonzaga could pose problems for the Gaels when they face each other in WCC play. That being said, I still believe the Gaels are legitimate contenders in the WCC, even despite the soft non-conference schedule and loss to South Carolina on Sunday.