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

Amazingly, of all possible games Gonzaga could’ve been involved in to make the national title game, this is the opponent they drew. The team responsible for what was the definitive Gonzaga loss for a generation. The team that went all the way to the title game that year. A program with so much history, so many championships, and so much success…and a program that we are now simultaneously treating as a massive underdog against the team that championed being the underdog.

This is a weird game to preview, but I can’t help but love it. It’s been a weird year. We deserved at least one out-of-nowhere Final Four game, and I’m sure Gonzaga fans are probably happy that they’re the likely beneficiary of such a draw. But: you cannot underestimate this UCLA team. No one has for weeks now, not after they knocked off analytics darling Alabama and sentimental favorite Michigan. (Do you realize how cool Juwan Howard has to be to make Michigan a sentimental favorite?) They’re coming into this one with nothing to lose against the one team that hasn’t experienced a loss to date. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

NEXT PAGE: When UCLA has the ball

Show Me Future Opponents: Gonzaga/Kansas

On Earth-2, instead of this post, you are reading the preview of Tennessee’s fixture against VCU, which would have happened at 6:30 PM Eastern this evening. (Also, on Earth-2, COVID just doesn’t exist, so we are several games deep.) Unfortunately, we do not live on Earth-2, and Tennessee basketball is paused due to COVID concerns for at least a few days more. Until then, we’ll be taking a look at some other teams on Tennessee’s future schedule, along with a team Tennessee was going to play but won’t until, if ever, March/April.

In the midst of my Thanksgiving lunch, while I was on serving #3 of stuffing, the best game of college basketball’s opening week was being played: #6 Kansas vs. #1 Gonzaga at a neutral site. Both teams lost three of their five starters from a year ago, when they were the two best teams in basketball, but one team happened to reload a little better than the other. As astounding as it might be to imagine this, it was Gonzaga who brought in more blue-chip recruits – three to Kansas’s one. Both teams returned about the same amount of minutes and production, but Gonzaga had the higher potential, most thought. Also, this was before Gonzaga added Andrew Nembhard, Florida’s starting point guard the last two seasons, for this season on Tuesday.

On Thanksgiving day, two of the three-ish best programs of the last half-decade went at it on FOX. If you told Kansas fans before the game that they’d do the following:

  • Score 90 points
  • Tied the turnover battle
  • Made two more threes than Gonzaga
  • Hold Gonzaga to 6-for-18 from three

They would be well within their right to guess Kansas won this game fairly easily, because all of those stats should bode really well for the team involved. Instead, Kansas is leaving Thanksgiving Day with a 102-90 loss and their most points allowed to an opponent in regulation in 30 years. Gonzaga, one of the best three-point shooting teams of the last decade, didn’t need a great day from downtown, because they were absurdly dominant in the paint. We’re going to explore why, with an offense vs. defense exploration on both ends.

When Gonzaga had the ball

Mark Few had a mission and pursued it start-to-finish: attack the paint in a wide variety of ways with their taller, more versatile lineups. Kansas’s best player last year was Devon Dotson, but their most important piece was Udoka Azubuike, a giant center who simply could not stop blocking shots. Last year, Kansas allowed the third-lowest 2PT% in the nation, a figure made even more impressive by the fact they played KenPom’s second-hardest schedule.

This year, Kansas has David McCormack, a perfectly fine 6’10” center who can’t move nearly as well as Azubuike and was rendered unplayable for significant portions of this game.

McCormack only got to 20 minutes in this game because Drew Timme, a Gonzaga sophomore, was destroying him all over the court. Timme went for 25 points on 15 shots (9-for-11 at the rim), a career-high in points, along with six rebounds and a couple of steals. Timme was used in a variety of Gonzaga sets – most of them of the ball-screen variety – and he explored a few different ways of getting the ball in positive situations. Timme slips the pick in the GIF above, but here’s one where he comes off a roll action unguarded with as easy a dunk as he’ll have this year:

Of course, it wasn’t just Timme. The headliner coming out of this game will be star freshman Jalen Suggs, an almost-certain lottery pick who lived up to and exceeded his own hype. Against a top-10 team in his first college game, Suggs scored 24 points in 24 minutes and looked unstoppable everywhere. For years, Few has loved to push the pace in transition offensively, believing (correctly) that with the right talent, it can produce his most efficient offense possible. Suggs looks to be the perfect piece to ignite the Gonzaga engine:

Let me reiterate: in his first-ever college game against a top-10 team, Jalen Suggs got 24 points on 15 shots along with eight assists in 24 minutes. This is a very special player, even before you get to his scoring skillset. Suggs was able to get to the rim at will, scoring seven times on 11 attempts from a variety of looks, but he looked especially threatening off of picks:

In a way, it does make me the mildest bit relieved Tennessee does not have to defend this offense yet. Bill Self is one of the greatest coaches of the 21st century, and over the last five seasons, Kansas has consistently had one of the 5-10 best defenses each season. After the dust settles in 2020-21, despite the pandemic, I don’t expect this to change. There’s several good individual defenders on the Kansas roster. And it did not matter one bit, because this Gonzaga offense has a historic amount of fantastic shooters, great drivers, excellent big men, and all-around good scorers. Rarely, if ever, do these pieces come together on the same team. This particular offense has the potential to be as good, if not better, than 2017-18 Villanova.

The offense is so good that I feel rude for excluding a few other fun performances in this one, namely Nembhard (11 points on six shots) and Joel Ajayi (15 points and nine rebounds). But it wouldn’t feel right to end this somewhere other than Corey Kispert (23 points on 13 shots). Kispert realistically could’ve made an NBA roster after last season, and not many expected him to return for 2020-21. When he did, it cemented Gonzaga as a serious championship contender. There’s still improvements to be made defensively, but he remains Gonzaga’s very best three-point shooter regardless of game situation:

You cannot give him even an inch of space to get these off. Kispert shot 3-for-8 from three in this one (everyone else on Gonzaga combined for 3-for-10), which may look just okay, but 37.5% is a solid rate for any one game. Kispert’s status as the lone senior starter on this team (and a career 39.3% three-point shooter) helps cement him as probably the important piece for a Gonzaga run; as fun as the one-and-dones are, it is valuable to have these more experienced pieces come March.

Lastly: Gonzaga’s main five are going to be incredibly difficult for anyone to defend, much less their overwhelmed WCC opponents. Kispert, the best deep shooter, actually functions as the nominal 4 in the Zags’ lineup, and center Timme appears to have added at least some type of a three-point shot. (He attempted one and missed it.) All five starters were very efficient against a high-end opponent. While you can’t take too much from one game, I really don’t know how many defenses in basketball – maybe only Virginia and Texas Tech – will be equipped to keep Gonzaga somewhat contained for most of a 40-minute game.

When at least four of Gonzaga’s main five were on the court together, the Bulldogs outscored Kansas by 22 points across roughly a 29-minute span of the game. When all five were out there together – which only happened in the second half – Gonzaga outscored Kansas 37-19 in a 12-minute span of game time. Again, this is against the #6 team on KenPom, #16 on Bart Torvik. It’s not as if they’re a pushover; they just had nothing for this offense.

When Kansas had the ball

Again, go back to those stats from the intro. Kansas did a lot of good in this game offensively, and a 1.098 points-per-possession rate adjusts out to a very good offensive performance against a top-20 defense. Like I mentioned, the Jayhawks hit eight of their 18 three-point attempts, with three different players spreading the wealth and hitting two each. Gonzaga had a tough time guarding both Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji, as both got open from downtown frequently.

Still, it isn’t enough to overcome a masterful offensive outing by Gonzaga and, in return, a disastrous defensive performance by the Jayhawks. Gonzaga’s shooting numbers would make any competition look feeble in comparison, and it unfortunately did so to this Kansas outing. Kansas posted an eFG% of 59.7%, which would’ve been their seventh-best performance last season and the third-worst eFG% given up by 2019-20 Gonzaga. They had a great day on the offensive end. Unfortunately, they needed to have a historically great day to win.

Kansas has a lot of good to take away from this game on offense, though. Before the season started, I wasn’t really sure who would drive the Kansas offense forward like Devon Dotson did last year. There wasn’t an obvious answer, and as many as four different players seemed like reasonable responses. Both Garrett and Agbaji stepped up yesterday to give Kansas fans some serious hope. In the first half, Self ran several high ball-screen sets to get Garrett space to drive to the rim:

In the first half, Gonzaga mostly allowed these to not become hard-hedges or “ice” calls, largely staying in single coverage. At halftime, though, Few made a clear adjustment by hedging hard and forcing a double team on the ball-handler for at least a second or two, which took the ball out of Garrett’s hands more often. Bill Self actually countered this fairly well by getting the ball out of his guards’ hands very quickly, but Kansas simply made mistake after mistake and failed to take advantage.

Let’s counter this with an area of joy for the Jayhawks: the amount of open looks they got all over the court. Per Synergy, 15 of the 20 catch-and-shoot jumpers in half-court for Kansas were unguarded, and they took advantage, scoring 19 points and particularly getting a lot of open looks in the first half. Christian Braun got looks this open on two consecutive possessions late in the first half, and you could tell it was giving Mark Few a headache.

Again, at halftime, Few made an adjustment: Gonzaga was to close out hard on these three-point attempts and either force tougher looks or make Kansas head inside the arc to try their luck. It doesn’t often work this way, but it’s exactly what ended up happening. Kansas made 6-of-11 threes in the first half, but just 2-of-7 in the second while taking a ton of mid-range jumpers. Luckily for the Jayhawks, they had one of their best days ever from the mid-range, converting 12-of-21 non-rim two-pointers. Bryce Thompson (not the cornerback) in particular kept Kansas in this for a while:

Here’s a more accurate example of what I’m talking about:

All in all, both teams probably have things to be excited about here and serious questions to address. For this side of the ball specifically – Kansas’ offense, Gonzaga’s defense – let’s address a positive and negative for each.

Kansas can be excited about the fact they found four double-digit scorers against the best team in the nation and weren’t entirely reliant on one player to drive the offense. They found a ton of open shots, particularly in the first half, and made Gonzaga present several adjustments they clearly weren’t hoping to have to use at the start of the game. Kansas countered some of these adjustments pretty well. However, they should be worried about the fact Gonzaga erased their traditional ball-screen sets almost entirely in the second half, and to be honest, they should probably be more than a little alarmed at how easily they settled for 17-20 foot two-pointers instead of shooting more threes.

Gonzaga won the game, successfully countered several of Bill Self’s main actions, and took control in the second half when the game was up for grabs. Of particular note should be the Bulldogs forcing nine Kansas turnovers, rendering a 57.7% half from two useless. That said, Gonzaga gave up a ton of open threes in the first half, and the blueprint seems to be there to get open shots against this defense. Plus, uh, not exactly over the moon on the rim protection here – Kansas went just 13-for-23 at the rim, but Gonzaga didn’t block a single shot and a few of the Kansas misses were self-inflicted.

If you like these, let me know by emailing or Tweeting @statsbywill on said website.

The ten most fun Division I basketball offenses of 2019-20

In the midst of what is on target to be the least-efficient offensive season of college basketball since 2011-12 if not 2002-03, it’s best to find reasons to keep watching. The team where I live, Tennessee, is struggling through a gap year. The rest of the state, minus one notable exception we’ll get to, hasn’t produced a super-watchable Division I team. Schools are slowly adjusting to the new three-point line, but it’s taken the full season to do so. If you tossed on a random college basketball game, you’re likely to see more missed shots than you’re accustomed to.

That said, there are several teams and offenses this season that are worth your time and effort to watch them. In particular, the top two have reached “stop whatever you’re doing and watch this” status for me against any opponent that isn’t totally overwhelmed. (There’s numerous reasons to watch teams in the 101-300 range of KenPom’s rankings, as we’ll touch on, but not all of them are exactly fun to watch when playing a top 25 squad.)

In the post-Super Bowl pre-March area of the calendar, it feels right to give these teams their proper recognition. It’s been one of the least pretty years of basketball in some time, but it’s also been one of the most unpredictable and strange years, too. The closest comparison I have is 2010-11, which turned into an utterly insane NCAA Tournament in a year where it felt like there was no true #1 team. (Ohio State, in retrospect, was probably it…and they lost in the Sweet Sixteen.) So: here’s the ten Division I offenses I’ve had the most fun watching this season.

Honorable mentions: South Dakota, San Diego State, Iowa, Austin Peay, Louisville, Alabama.

NEXT PAGE: Teams 10-6

Building a Better Basketball Offense, Part 1: Transition

“I will never, ever play the game the other way. We’re not going to play like everyone else, just because every other coach is doing it. I’d throw up.” – Tim Cluess, Iona head coach

Imagine a world where, at your profession, you control the pace of your work. Sure, maybe you do so right now, but it isn’t true for most of us. The vast majority of what you do is at a plodding pace, one where you’re forced to get creative to hit a goal in an efficient manner. Occasionally, though, an opportunity comes about: a way to get things done that offers a fast pace, higher efficiency, and, generally, a more fun outcome. If everyone else is working at a slower, more deliberate pace 85% of the time and only doing the fun, quick stuff for the other 15%, you’d like to increase the amount of time you spend on the fun and easy stuff, right? Congrats: on part one of a seven-part series, you’ve solved college basketball.

It would be nice if it was that easy. Like most sports, points come at a premium in college basketball. Unsurprisingly, it’s much easier to score in transition than in half-court. The average transition offense in D-1 puts up 1.11 points per shot; average half-court, 0.994 PPS. That’s a difference of eight points in an average D-1 game. Why don’t more teams play fast, then? Because:

    • It’s just about impossible to play an entire game in transition.
    • Unless you have a really, really deep team, you’re going to have to slow the game down somewhat to keep your players from falling over.

However, playing faster and scoring more points is starting to equal better efficiency. The ten fastest teams in D-1 in 2018-19 averaged 1.066 PPP; the ten slowest, 1.03. This has greatly shifted from the 35-second shot clock era. In 2014-15, the last year of the 35-second shot clock, only four of the ten fastest offenses in America ranked in the top 100 in efficiency; five of the ten slowest did, with none ranking below #245.

While it’s impossible to build the perfect offense, even for transition, we can at least look at what ties the best offenses together to form an easier path forward. This series isn’t about building the perfect basketball offense. It’s about making your offense better. This edition includes interviews with Whitman College head coach Eric Bridgeland and West Virginia Tech head coach Bob Williams. If you’d like to skip ahead to a certain team’s section, you may do so here: