Why Gonzaga’s beatable even though its shooting isn’t

(Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

On February 22, 2020, Gonzaga lost 91-78 at BYU. Mark Few’s team would rally from that defeat and finish the season 31-2 with a WCC tournament title and a presumptive NCAA tournament No. 1 seed in its pocket. Then came the pandemic.

It turns out something notable occurred that night in Provo, something even more singular than the fact that Gonzaga lost by 13. After all, we all saw the Bulldogs lose by 16 last April. That can happen with the Zags, albeit only once in a great while. What we haven’t seen since February 22, 2020, however, is a game where the opposing team shoots much more accurately from the floor than Gonzaga. The Cougars posted an effective field goal percentage of 62.1 that evening, while the Bulldogs clocked in at 45.8.

Few’s team has played 44 games since that loss at BYU, and in 43 of them the Zags shot more accurately from the field than did their opponent. Even in losses to Baylor in the 2021 national title game and to Duke last Friday night, Gonzaga was measurably more accurate in its shooting than were the winning teams.

Apr 5 21         eFG%    PPP      
Baylor           52.2    1.26
Gonzaga          56.1    1.03          

Nov 26 21
Duke             51.5    1.06
Gonzaga          57.8    1.03      

The one blip in this 21-month reign of superior shooting was Gonzaga’s overtime win against UCLA in the 2021 Final Four. The Bruins posted an eFG percentage of 64.4 that night. The Bulldogs came in at 64.3.

It is unusual for a team to play basketball for the better part of two years while always shooting better than or, at worst, as well as its opponents. Shooting’s supposed to be more fickle than that, even for the best teams. Baylor, for example, has a predictably impressive 39-5 record to show for its last 44 games, yet the Bears have been on the short end of the shooting-accuracy stick on no fewer than 12 occasions over that span.

Or take peak Villanova. The famously accurate Wildcats won two national titles in three seasons between 2016 and 2018 while ranking Nos. 8, 5, and 1 in the nation for eFG percentage. Yet even Jay Wright’s teams from the Brunson-Hart-Bridges-DiVincenzo years can’t hold a candle to what Gonzaga’s doing right now in terms of shooting consistency.

In its most impressive 44-game run of shooting from that era, Villanova was less accurate than its opponents eight times. Wright’s guys quite plainly hit their shots circa 2018 (ask Kansas), but they did so rather more erratically. The statistical variance in Villanova’s 58.8 eFG percentage over that stretch was almost twice what we’ve seen from the Bulldogs and their 60.7 since February 22, 2020.

And, no, the Zags’ current run of inexorable accuracy can’t be laid at the feet of the schedule alone. While the non-Gonzaga WCC isn’t as strong statistically as a typical major conference and a single game against a sufficiently great FG defense can indeed snap any streak like this, a scant majority of the Zags’ last 44 games have been played against non-conference opponents. For the record, Gonzaga’s shooting has been virtually the same against the WCC as it’s been against the rest of Division I over those 44 outings. As is very often the case, Gonzaga’s excellence here is based on more than the schedule.

Look no further than the Bulldogs’ loss to the now No.1-ranked Blue Devils. On a night when Duke’s outstanding rim defender Mark Williams recorded five blocks (and should have been credited with six), the Zags somehow still managed to connect on 65 percent of their two-point attempts. For the past 21 months, win or lose, this kind of accuracy has been notably constant from GU across all manner of opponents.

To be sure, Gonzaga’s streak of every-game accuracy will end soon enough. For one thing, it appears likely that Julian Strawther, Rasir Bolton, Andrew Nembhard, and Chet Holmgren collectively won’t be as accurate on their threes this season as Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs, Joel Ayayi, and Nembhard were last season.

Possibly the streak will meet its demise this season at the hands of an apparently ascendant WCC that, for the moment, is showing its highest rating in the KenPom era. Until then, however, the veritable flood of makes that has already occurred in Spokane in all its improbable multi-season glory perhaps has something to tell us about how we should be watching the Bulldogs.

First Baylor and then Duke beat Gonzaga not by forcing the Zags to miss their shots but simply by recording more attempts. The Bears overwhelmed Few’s team with attempts by crashing the offensive glass and pulling down 48 percent of their own misses. The Blue Devils weren’t about to achieve second-chance results like that against Gonzaga, but Mike Krzyzewski’s men committed just eight turnovers in a 79 possession-contest.

Finally, both BU and Duke forced the Bulldogs to give the ball away on about one in every five possessions. As a result, in both losses the sweet-shooting Zags landed in the not-at-all-sweet high 80s on the shot volume index. In Gonzaga’s most recent outing, Tarleton State took a page from this same book and elicited turnovers from the Bulldogs on fully 24.6 percent of their trips down the floor. The Zags are historically magnificent in their shooting but eminently and unmistakably mortal in terms of shot volume.

When speaking of a team that’s won 69 of its last 73 games, there will be no easy answers for how an opponent might see its way through to victory. Just the same, recent history suggests that grabbing offensive boards and forcing Gonzaga to turn the ball over are two potential methods for getting the job done. Baylor did both and won easily. Duke did one of them and eked out a win. Those two methods will merit our attention and tweets for as long as the Bulldogs’ run of hegemonic shooting accuracy continues.