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Gonzaga brings elite defense of its own into game against Syracuse's zone

Syracuse plays a zone, they say. But Gonzaga's defense is better.

From left to right: Gonzaga's Silas Melson, Kyle Dranginis, Domantas Sabonis and Eric McClellan.
From left to right: Gonzaga's Silas Melson, Kyle Dranginis, Domantas Sabonis and Eric McClellan.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Have you heard? Have you heard about the Syracuse Orange and their 2-3 zone defense? Of course you have, it's big news!

Like, nearly 600 articles big according to a search of the term "Syracuse zone" on Google News.

What you might not have heard about is how good Gonzaga is on the defensive end. Defense isn't something the Zags have been hanging their hats on for years like Jim Boeheim's Syracuse teams. Honestly, especially on the perimeter, it's been an Achilles' heel for this program over the years. But something has changed in Spokane, Washington this season.

Among the remaining 16 NCAA Tournament teams you could easily argue that Gonzaga's defense is the best.

What isn't up for debate is that Gonzaga's effective field goal percentage defense (44.9%, t-12th nationally) and three point percentage defense (30.3%, 8th nationally) are better than any other Sweet 16 team's. There's also no question that Gonzaga's overall shooting defense is better than Syracuse's.

eFG% Defense 2pt% Defense 3pt% Defense
Gonzaga 44.9% 44.7% 30.3%
Syracuse 46.8% 47.6% 30.4%

I'm not trying to say the vaunted Syracuse zone is bad. And yes, the zone forces a ton of turnovers which are not represented in the stats mentioned above. What I am trying to say is that while Syracuse has a great defense, so does Gonzaga. The Zags defense was completely ignored by the media when they faced Seton Hall in the First Round. Isaiah Whitehead was supposed to shred Gonzaga's backcourt. He didn't, but analysts and commentators gave Denver's altitude the credit for that. Denver got the credit for stopping Utah's Jakob Poeltl two days later.

Gonzaga's defense is really good, and if there's a time to realize that the Sweet 16 is as good as any.

They've got a defensive stud in senior guard Eric McClellan, the WCC Defensive Player of the Year, but they play fantastic team defense. Over the past three games Gonzaga has shown the ability to stop three wildly different teams. Let's see how they've managed that.

In the WCC Tournament final, likely a win or go to the NIT scenario for Gonzaga, the Zags faced one of the nation's most unselfish teams in Saint Mary's. The Gaels came into that game 17th in the nation in assist rate (62%). Gonzaga kept the Gaels two point guards in check and completely threw what was the nation's best shooting offense out of whack. They finished the game with just nine assists, roughly half their usual.

Against Seton Hall Gonzaga had to contain one of the nation's best scoring guards in Whitehead. Considering he went 0-10 from three and scored just ten points I would say they accomplished that.

"He's obviously a great player," Kyle Wiltjer, one Zag not known for his defense, said in the postgame press conference. "I think it wasn't just one-on-one with him. It was kind of a team effort. We were in the gaps. Especially Domas, he did a great job of vertically contesting when he got down there."

Then against Utah Gonzaga had to contain one of the nation's best big men in Jakob Poeltl. He scored just five points, so once again it was mission accomplished for the Zags.

Under Mark Few Gonzaga has been known as a highly skilled offensive unit with great guard play and talented bigs. The bigs kept them afloat early in the season while the guards developed. Once they came into their own the guards righted the ship in Spokane. But that alone isn't why Gonzaga has run to second weekend as an 11-seed.

They've stopped well-oiled offenses, potent guards and a projected first round draft pick big man. They might not play a zone, but they play dang good defense and people had better start taking note of that.