Zags: Lurching, listing and trying to maintain a very high bar
I’ll have to admit, I’m not much for advanced analytics in college basketball. My expertise in numbers tends to become strained somewhere just past the old maxim that a good free throw shooter will hit 70 percent.
So it was a bit of a relief for me – if not for Gonzaga – when I stumbled across a number that goes a long way toward describing the Zags’ uneven 5-3 start entering Monday night’s game with Kent State.
What gives with this Gonzaga team, you might wonder. How do you get destroyed at Texas, how do you get schooled shamelessly by Purdue? How, in a grinder where converted baskets are like gold, do you surrender an 8-0 run in the last 90 seconds to lose to Baylor?
When I was researching Glory Hounds, I recall being around Zags coach Mark Few during some fretful times early in the 2015-16 season. That was when Josh Perkins was a not-ready-for-prime-time redshirt freshman, and the guard play was unsteady, and Gonzaga dropped winnable home games against Arizona and UCLA, and suddenly found itself needing to win the WCC title to keep its NCAA-tournament streak alive.
To be clear, this isn’t that. Even lurching through the first month of the season, the Zags have collected three quality wins, against Michigan State, Kentucky and Xavier. They won’t be sweating Selection Sunday.
But a lot of other things, well, those seem very much on the table – like the Zags’ remarkable string of seven straight Sweet 16s. Dare we even think that a Washington team playing better could be a threat to win at Gonzaga Friday night, for the first time since, what is it, 1937?
Back to that telling statistic. The Zags have an assist-turnover ratio of 1.03, which is territory visited only by the irredeemables of college basketball.
Something up around 1.20 is a good number. Anything threatening 1.40 is very good. And anything beyond that is elite, a number that bespeaks a team that shares the ball well, knows how to get a good shot, knows how to pass up a good shot for a better one and generally beats the opponent into submission simply by its precision.
I suspect the number 1.03 drives Few crazy – not the number per se, but what it represents, which is the absence of all those attributes.
For perspective, the four Gonzaga teams from 2019-22 never dipped below a 1.49 assist-turnover ratio, topped by the insane 1.695 turned in by the 2019 team – Perkins as a senior, Zach Norvell, Geno Crandall off the bench – that lost to Texas Tech to go to the Final Four. Those guys threw a lot of profitable passes to Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Corey Kispert.
In Gonzaga’s gilded history, you have to go all the way back to 2010 to find a poorer number than 1.03. It was 1.027 then, with Matt Bouldin’s less than 2-to-1 ratio weighted down by some big turnover numbers from Elias Harris and Robert Sacre.
To date, the Zags don’t really have a complementary front-court scoring piece to go with Drew Timme. Anton Watson is a valuable player, but not a scorer. That’s why the emergence of Ben Gregg should be important going forward, especially in light of the back problems that have derailed Kaden Perry.
Essentially, when teams overplay Timme – and they’re likely to do more and more of that – the Zags are reliant on outside shooters as a means of retaliation. Julian Strawther has had his moments as a version of ’20-21 Kispert but he’s also committed 20 turnovers, compared to 26 all of last year.
The overshadowing factor in all this, of course, is the fact the Zags are breaking in a new point guard in sophomore Nolan Hickman. That’s an unusual strait recently at GU, which has become accustomed to Nigel Williams-Goss and Perkins-as-vet, and the dynamism of Jalen Suggs, and the joystick control the past two seasons of Andrew Nembhard, now in the NBA beating the Lakers with buzzer-beaters.
So here were the Zags last week against Baylor, suddenly down one in the dying seconds with Timme having fouled out. During a timeout, coaches peered at some notes and then sent players back onto the floor. As the sequence began, somebody appeared to shoo Hickman out on top.
There was an exchange of turnovers. In the last seconds, Rasir Bolton drove and put up a shot that wasn’t close.
The whole thing wasn’t Gonzaga’s finest look. And it reinforced another frailty of this team: There’s really nobody who can create his own shot.
Big picture, the profile of the program has become associated with Elite Eight or Final Four runs. The Zags have established an awfully high bar, and anything less seems unworthy. And even as out of sync as Gonzaga has sometimes looked, there they are with KenPom’s No. 2 offensive rating.
Last week, it was almost laughable when Peacock TV's announcers underscored the notion that a loss to Baylor might scuttle Gonzaga's chances at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. What snow-globe world was this they were visiting?
Perhaps, though, it’s a reminder that every season can’t be cherries jubilee for dessert.
Some years are going to be more like pudding. Absent some big improvement, this could be one of those.