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Gonzaga’s transformed defense faces tough tests against San Francisco and Saint Mary’s

The Zags will have to prove themselves as two strong offenses visit Spokane over the next three days.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Santa Clara
Gonzaga has been employing a 1-2-2, three-quarter court press, with 6-foot-8 forward Rui Hachimura at the top, quite frequently over the past 12 games.
D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

If defense wins championships, it also wins games. For Gonzaga, defense has won 12 straight. If that stretches to 14 this weekend, it will be time for the nation to take note.

Back-to-back losses in mid-December to Tennessee and North Carolina — the Zags’ only losses to date — brought to light defensive issues that could well doom the team come tournament time. Since then, improvement on that end of the floor has been a critical concern for Gonzaga.

“It’s something that a large emphasis has been put on because I think we were underperforming on that end of the court and not playing to our capability with our size and athleticism,” guard Geno Crandall said. “It’s something that’s been drilled into us every day in practice, that we need to improve on defense, and we’re now seeing that come to fruition.”

The payoff was both immediate — Crandall made those comments on Jan. 10, just after he and the Zags held Pacific to a paltry 36 points — and long-term. In the 12 games since losing at North Carolina, Gonzaga’s opponents are averaging just 0.78 points per possession, a massive improvement upon the 1.04 Gonzaga was allowing over the first 11 games of the year.

This defensive transformation took place only after Gonzaga completed the most brutal stretch of its non-conference slate. The Zags have faced only two top-100 KenPom teams since losing in Chapel Hill.

So, the question of Gonzaga’s actual ability on the defensive end remains. The Zags boast the best offense in college basketball this season — and are perhaps the most efficient offensive unit in the history of the sport — but is the defense elite as well? Do the Zags have what it takes on that end of the floor to claim the title of best team in the country and bring home the program’s first national championship?

In just a few days, we will know the answer to the first question; we’ll have to wait until March or April to figure out that second one.

San Francisco and Saint Mary’s make their annual visits to Spokane this Thursday and Saturday, respectively, and with them come the two toughest tests the Zags have faced in a very, very long time. The stress will mostly be felt, for Gonzaga, on the defensive end.

San Francisco is averaging 1.1 points per possession since the start of conference play, which is the third best mark in the WCC. At home against Gonzaga on Jan. 12, the Dons scored 1.187 points per possession. Only Creighton, Duke and North Carolina have played more efficient basketball against Gonzaga this season, and all three of those teams faced Gonzaga before the Zags recommitted to defense.

While San Francisco proved it could score against Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s has been proving it can score against everyone.

The Gaels are averaging 1.16 points per possession this season, which ranks 11th nationally. Junior guard Jordan Ford (21.9 ppg) is the WCC’s leading scorer and sophomore forward Malik Fitts (16.3 ppg) is coming off a career-high 30-point performance against San Francisco. Randy Bennett’s team, despite losing the greatest four-year class in program history, is playing as efficient offense as ever.

If the Zags honor their commitment to defense instead of reverting to their early-season approach of simply outscoring their opposition, then I’ll be convinced. This team has looked like an elite defense over the past month-and-a-half, and the numbers seem to back it up, but they’ve yet to contain a team like those they’ll face over the next few days.

“It’s just a pride thing,” Crandall said. “Taking pride in wanting to stop somebody. We can score almost at will so I think it’s going to come down for us a lot of times if we can get stops as well.”

Defense has been bringing pride to the Zags. Depending on how things go this weekend, it might bring fear to any team that has to face it going forward.

How to watch Gonzaga’s upcoming games:

vs. San Francisco:
Time: 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PST
TV: ROOT Sports
Stream: Stadium Sports

vs. Saint Mary’s:
Time: 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PST
Stream: WatchESPN