Final Four Preview: (1) Gonzaga vs. (11) UCLA

When Gonzaga has the ball

For starters, you could just call this section “total destruction.” Lest we forget, in the last three rounds, Gonzaga played (in order) the 53rd, 32nd, and 7th-ranked defenses. Before that, in the West Coast Conference Tournament, they played 12th-ranked Saint Mary’s and 29th-ranked BYU. It’s not as if they haven’t been tested in March; in fact, the total opposite is accurate. And it hasn’t mattered one bit.

In order, from the West Coast Tournament to now, Gonzaga has posted 1.092, 1.265, 1.332 (against Norfolk State), 1.26, 1.14, and 1.18 PPP in a stretch where four of the six defenses they played were in KenPom’s top 35 and Oklahoma’s was a fine-enough 53rd. And none of these six defenses held Gonzaga even below 1.09 PPP. Only one team all season held the Bulldogs below 1.07 PPP: Damon Stoudamire’s Pacific on February 4 (1.028 PPP). Beyond that, it’s just been shredding after shredding, no matter what the opponent tries. The only way to threaten Gonzaga is simply to make a bunch of shots, because if you don’t, they’re going to burn you up and down the court.

Only two teams in all of college basketball have a shorter Average Possession Length than Gonzaga’s 14.3 seconds. Only Alabama got more of their initial shot attempts in the first ten seconds of the shot clock than Gonzaga’s 38.9%. Only three teams got a higher percentage of field goal attempts in the first ten seconds of the shot clock off of a rebound than Gonzaga’s 25.1%. You get the point. What Gonzaga does doesn’t always look flawless, but it’s as close to flawless as we’ll get this year. If you allow them any room at all in transition, you’re going to get crushed, whether that’s at the rim as shown above or on one of Corey Kispert’s 35 transition threes:

Only four teams have held Gonzaga below the 70-possession mark this year, and all four lost by at least 14 points. (Saint Mary’s got closest on January 16.) Two teams this season – BYU and Virginia – held Gonzaga to fewer than 16 attempts in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock. They lost by a combined 40 points. No matter what you try, it feels kind of silly to try in the first place. Which is why I’m here to say UCLA probably has the best chance of any team they’ve played this Tournament to actually slow them down a tad.

UCLA’s entire schtick this March has been to slow the game to a dripping pace, and multiple times in each game, Tyger Campbell has had to jog to get across before he incurs a 10-second backcourt violation. Clearly, the Bruins want to drain the clock, which makes sense when you’re playing more talented opponents like Alabama and Michigan. Against Gonzaga, that’s going to be incredibly tough. However, it’s worth noting that UCLA held Alabama to 64 regulation possessions, a number that would’ve been the lowest possession total under Nate Oats to date. Even when they missed, they did a good job of getting back in transition and forcing one-and-done possessions.

To be honest, that’s kind of all you can do. UCLA’s rim defense is fine but nothing special, and hilariously, they’ve given up a ton of mid-range jumper makes this year. (Opponents are hitting 40.6% of Other Twos, which helps explain their poor 2PT% allowed.) If UCLA doesn’t get back quickly after missed shots, Gonzaga is going to go on a 7-0 run before the Bruins have had time to understand what happened.

In half-court, UCLA’s task is to find a way to defend Gonzaga’s continuity sets/ball-screen actions without allowing Drew Timme to get open as the roller or allowing Jalen Suggs to get to the basket. Only two teams this year got more shots at the basket than Gonzaga’s 48.4% of all attempts, which makes the fact they converted 72% of these shots (#1 nationally) genuinely astounding. (The only teams that even came close to them in terms of high rim numbers/high FG% were Illinois and Loyola Chicago.)

Gonzaga’s system would be very good if it were just one threat or the other, but the fact that they have both Timme and Suggs and you have to defend potential kickouts makes it pretty much impossible. No guard left in this Tournament is as frightening a scorer at the rim as Jalen Suggs, in particular because the vast majority of his shots are created by him and him alone.

While UCLA’s half-court defense this year has been kind of a mess, they’ve been pretty good at defending ball screens, though they also haven’t faced a threat nearly as good as this one. In general, it’ll be more ideal if Tyger Campbell/Jules Bernard can force Suggs into pull-up jumpers instead of attempts at the basket. As electrifying as Suggs is, he’s only shot 33% from deep this year and doesn’t take many mid-range twos. To be honest, 0.99 expected PPP (on threes) is just better than 1.294 PPP (on rim attempts). You have to pick your poison, and the pull-up three is less poisonous.

Lastly: Drew Timme. How UCLA defends Timme probably determines how long they stay in this game. Timme is the best rim scorer in all of college basketball, a mustachioed hero who’s hitting 76.9% of his layup/dunk/tip attempts despite being the primary focus of opposing game plans these days. He isn’t much of a jump shooter, but his array of post moves has proven nearly impossible to defend this year. Synergy’s scorekeepers say that he’s scored an astounding 91 points on 57 post-up possessions on the right block this year, which is otherworldly. He can’t be stopped when going to the basket.

UCLA’s been good in post-up defense this year, but doubling Timme isn’t a great idea because he’ll simply pass it out to a shooter. Cody Riley is fine and blocks his share of shots, but he also commits nearly six fouls per 40 minutes. If Riley gets in foul trouble, post-up defense duties fall to either Kenneth Nwuba (8.5 fouls per 40 and a total zero offensively) or 6’6” Jaime Jaquez, who holds his own but gets overpowered by larger players.

I’m not quite sure what you do if you’re UCLA. Getting the ball out of Timme’s hands is a good idea, but you don’t want that ball ending up in the hands of an open Kispert or Joel Ayayi. (Even an open Suggs/Andrew Nembhard still aren’t great options.) Timme is a 69.5% foul shooter, making it genuinely preferable to just foul the guy instead of give up a shot that he’s hitting at a 76.9% rate.

Amazingly, we didn’t even get to threes. Gonzaga only takes about a third of their shots from downtown, and the only starters that hit more than 33% of their attempts are Kispert and Ayayi. Gonzaga’s actually experimented with taking more threes this March, which helped them further the margin of victory against Norfolk State (14-for-27) and helped them bury Oklahoma (8-for-22) in a game where they had some unusual struggles at times. UCLA allows 37.9% of opponent attempts to come from deep, which isn’t bad, but does leave them open to the whims of variation. Of course, this will be meaningless if Gonzaga comes out and converts 60%+ of their twos, so I can’t spend a ton of time on it.

NEXT PAGE: Lineup notes, key matchups, three predictions

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