Gonzaga Falls to Illinois: What the Zags Must Do to Bounce Back
Gonzaga has some work to do after it saw the end of its perfect season at the hands of 13th ranked Illinois tonight.
First of all, hats off to Brandon Paul and the Illini for a great showing tonight in a hostile road environment. Expectations are low for this team, but they will compete for the Big 10 Championship this season.
This loss is Gonzaga’s first, and it comes in its first real test.
To this point, Gonzaga has beaten some middle-of-the-road opponents such as West Virginia, Oklahoma and Washington State. The Zags will not really know the quality of these victories until the end of the season, though.
The long and the short of the matter is that Gonzaga came up short tonight, but there is a silver lining to the loss as a lot of weaknesses were illuminated.
Gonzaga is for real this season. This is by far the best team that Mark Few has coached in some time, but moving forward, he will have to address a couple key areas of weakness.
Less Reliance on Guards
Gonzaga has always been known for its incredible guard play, and this season, the Zags feature a talented sophomore backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr.
These two guards are phenomenal shooters and play their best when they get out on the break.
Gonzaga, though, can become too reliant on the two sophomores to score to keep it in games.
This is a very deep team who has quality four or five players down the bench. The Zags have to cut their sophomores a bit of slack as it is wildly unfair to ask this much from two players when the team is stacked with scorers.
Against Illinois, the two combined for 6-of-20 from the field and 4-of-14 from beyond the arc. The two continued taking contested three-pointer after contested three-pointer.
This speaks to the pressure that Pangos and Bell feel to lead the team.
Moving forward, Mark Few needs to shift the game plan to feature his talented frontcourt, and the sophomore backcourt has to know when to pass up its shots.
Get the Big Guys Involved
Gonzaga has been blessed with an incredible frontcourt this season.
With two talented forwards in Elias Harris and Sam Dower and two seven-foot centers in Kelly Olynyk and Przemek Karnowski, the Zags will have a height advantage in almost every contest.
The Zags have been at their best when they get their big guys involved in a high-low offense.
Each member of Gonzaga’s frontcourt has its own specific skill set:
Harris is an explosive forward with an incredible face-up game. Dower is a true back to the basket scorer. Olynyk is a guard in a seven-footer’s body and thrives in the pick-and-roll game. Karnowski is a tank inside, and while he is still a raw talent, the sky is truly the limit for the big man out of Poland.
What went wrong for the Zags in the loss to Illinois was that they abandoned their high-low offense. With talented players who can handle the ball and pass well in the post, there is absolutely no reason not to keep feeding them the ball.
The frontcourt combined for 42 points on 16-of-23 (70 percent) shooting. Gonzaga had a noticeable advantage in the post, and it is baffling that the Zags moved away from their talented bigs.
Gonzaga cannot move away from its bigs, especially down the stretch.
Close Out on Shooters
There were times in the Illinois game that Gonzaga would put its hand in the face of shooters, only to watch them sink a three-pointer over them.
Even more frustrating is that there were the times when Illinois would find an open shooter because of bad defensive rotation within the zone.
The Zags must do a better job closing out on shooters.
Players like Brandon Paul of Illinois and Brock Motum of Washington State are great shooters, and they only become better when a poor defensive close out leaves them with an open jump shot.
Gonzaga must work on this as they have upcoming games against Baylor, Oklahoma State and St. Mary’s; all teams riddled with elite shooters.
More Production from the Wing Position
Gonzaga’s greatest offensive liability is at the small forward position.
Guy Landry Edi has looked lost in the offense, and he has been prone to turnovers and unruly play as he tries to slash into the lane.
Mike Hart, on the other hand, is a defensive specialist. He has been less timid on the offensive end of the floor this season, but he is by no means a threat to beat any defense single-handedly.
With an undersized backcourt, the Zags rely heavily on these two players to play lock-down defense on bigger guards and wings.
This does not excuse the lack of offensive production from the position, though.
Due to the lack of scoring from the wings, Gonzaga has experimented with a three-guard offense led by David Stockton. This only makes the Bulldogs smaller, though, and leaves them vulnerable to being bullied by players such as Brandon Paul.
In the loss to Illinois, the two wings combined for four points and no field goals.
If Mark Few cannot get more production out of this position, then teams are going to be able to focus on Gonzaga’s best scorers even more so.