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:
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.