In the first week of the 2014-2015 college basketball season, observers were treated to a few upsets, the unveiling of some future NBA stars in their “one-and-done” season, and a spectacular performance by number one seed Kentucky. The Wildcats turned in one of the most talked-about regular season performances ever when they dismantled Kansas 72-40 in the State Farm Champions Classic last Tuesday in Indianapolis. Coach John Calipari premiered his “platoons” of McDonald’s All-Americans – nine in total, including star freshmen Karl Towns, Devin Booker and Trey Lyles – and talk of an undefeated season ensued.
But out west, a team with an abundance of frontcourt size, skilled guards and an off-the-chart basketball IQ served their own notice to the college hoops world. The Gonzaga Bulldogs are one of the most impressive teams of the young season, as dominant as a team can be in two home victories over number 22 SMU (72-56) and St. Joseph’s (94-42). Bulldogs head coach Mark Few is one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the college game, and he has his team executing at a mid-season level in November.
Gonzaga is doing it with a pick-and-roll continuity offense, a few set plays, and a European flair (including one youngster with some famous European bloodlines). Few has been at Gonzaga for 16 seasons, and this may be his best team yet. Let us take a look at the formula that could finally take the Zags to the Final Four.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”category” cat=”537″ title=”More Team Breakdowns” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
Gonzaga’s offense is driven by senior guard Kevin Pangos, a crafty player who is excellent in pick-and-roll situations. The Zags also have a stable of big men with mid-range shooting ability in pick-and-pop situations, and Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer has three point range from the four spot.
The Bulldogs can get into the offense from their secondary break, but they frequently start from a box set, and get their wings open by rubbing off screens from the bigs. Pangos starts the offense with a simple point-to-wing pass, usually to the right side.
From there, the offense begins to take its four-out-one-in shape, and Gonzaga does an excellent job with spacing the floor. After the point-to-wing pass, the point guard cuts to the weakside corner and the low post man empties to the top. This isolates the pick-and-roll action on the right side, and, when Wiltjer is at 4, this can turn into a pick-and-pop. The wing is either going to turn the corner and score, find the roll/pop option, or pass to 5.
When 5 catches, 3 immediately cuts hard to the rim in what could be a backdoor opportunity in an overplay. 1 replaces him and 5 reverses to 1 and sets the ball screen for him. It is typically Pangos receiving the ball screen here, one of the best ball screen guards in the country. He understands the pocket pass, he can turn the corner and score with a floater, or he can hit the jumper if his defender goes under the ball screen.
If 1 cannot turn the corner or find 5 on the pick-and-roll, he passes to 4.
Upon 4’s catch, 2 cuts hard to the rim and heads to the opposite corner. If the ball is reversing quickly and the action is timed with the ball, 2’s cut can turn into a pin screen for 3. But most often this is an interchange, before 4 reverses to 3.
After 4 reverses to 3, he follows his pass and sets a ball screen. 5 again clears to the top so that the pick-and-roll is isolated on the wing. They continue to run this set and all its options until they find a good enough option to score. And with their depth at guard, great spacing, crisp ball movement and versatile bigs, Gonzaga has found great shots in this offense so far this season.
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There is more than just that one set-up, of course. The Zags run multiple offensive looks, and they often simply play Euro-style pick-and-roll basketball. When not in their continuity offense, Gonzaga uses a favored set play to get a shooter running off a staggered screen and create a high centered pick-and-roll.
Their favorite set play is this entry into a pick-and-roll up top. Pangos (1) dribbles to the left wing, and 2 sets a cross screen on the baseline for 3. Next, 5 and 4 set a stagger scree, and 3 comes off all of thes screens to the top of key. 1 passes to 3.
After setting his cross screen, 2 continues to right wing. After setting the second of the staggered screens, 4 cuts to right corner, while 5 loops to the top of the key to set a ball screen for 3.
The Zags now have a high centered pick-and-roll built with 5 setting a ball screen for 3, and shooters spaced all over the floor around this pick-and-roll situation. 3 uses the ball screen and reads who helps on the drive or the roll. With Gary Bell Jr at the 2 and Wiltjer at 4, the strongside defense is reluctant to leave. And against SMU, a Mustang defender (x1) who was guarding Pangos (1) left to help on the wide open man rolling to the basket, leaving Pangos open on the left wing for an easy three.
The 3 has the entire left side of the floor to reject the ball screen if the defense overplays. This creates a drive-and-kick situation with the deadly Pangos spaced on the left wing.
The Zags also favor this formation late in the shot clock to create a drive or a kick out opportunity.
Importantly, Gonzaga has real depth. Pangos is the unquestioned leader of the backcourt; he is a heady guard who uses ball screens well, as seen above, and who can shoot with deep range and a quick release. He is joined in the backcourt by two other scorers, Bell Jr and Byron Wesley. Bell was stunning against St. Joseph’s, hitting five of his seven three point attempts, while Wesley, a USC transfer, averaged 17.8 points per game last season in the Pac 12.
Behind this front three, the backcourt depth consists of sophomore guard Kyle Dranginis, another sharpshooter, and freshman point guard Josh Perkins. Perkins, a Denver native, was a four-star recruit and a top ten point guard last year at prep powerhouse Huntington (WV) Prep, and he is already getting some early run. In their early games, Few has tinkered with a lineup featuring Perkins at the point and Pangos off the ball. The Zags will further add another scoring wing when Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan becomes eligible in December – McClellan was Vanderbilt’s leading scorer (14.3ppg) before being dismissed from the Commodores after 12 games last season.
It is the frontcourt, however, that sets Gonzaga apart. The starting duo of Wiltjer (6’10”) and Przemek Karnowski (7’1″) offer the Zags a versatile stretch four in Wiltjer and a big body with a nuanced post game in Karnowski. The experienced Wiltjer also has a national title with Kentucky and was sixth man of the year in his last season in the SEC, the perfect trailer in the Zags’ transition offense. Behind them, Louisville transfer Angel Nunez is an athletic 6’8 forward who helps the Zags on the glass, and he has the speed to really drive the pace with rim runs in transition.
Much of the buzz surrounding the Zags is about the addition of Domantas Sabonis, whose surname NBA fans surely recognize as Sabonis is the son of Lithuanian Portland Trail Blazer legend Arvydas Sabonis. The younger Sabonis is a strong 6’10” lefty who finishes with authority around the hoop, only 18 years old and with some time served in the strong Spanish ACB League before enrolling at Gonzaga. Saboins has been a force in the Zags’s early games, averaging 14.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, shooting over 75% from the field. The Zags best lineup may eventually be to play Sabonis with Wiltjer if he continues to outperform Karnowski in this way. But whatever lineup Few goes with. he has options galore.
Gonzaga is a complete team on offense, and yet they have been equally good on the defensive end this season. The Zags are predominantly a man-to-man defensive team, and it works; they held a St. Joseph’s team, which lost to eventual national champions Connecticut in overtime in the NCAA tournament last year, to just 10 first half points and 11% field goal shooting. Against SMU, Gonzaga also ran a stifling matchup zone with man-to-man principles in addition to their regular man-to-man, limiting SMU to just 31% shooting from the field. The Zags were communicating in the zone and trading cutters like a team that already has 25 games under its belt.
The Bulldogs will have plenty of opportunities this season to prove itself worthy of legitimate Final Four consideration. They will face Georgia in the NIT Season Tip-Off in Madison Square Garden this week, where they could also face Minnesota or St. John’s. There are games outside of West Coast Conference play that will test the Zags as well, chief of which are trips to current number 2 Arizona on December 6th and UCLA on December 13th.
Making the headlines with all their star recruits, flamboyance and physical dominance, Kentucky’s play has begged the question as to who if anybody can beat them. But Gonzaga, with its high-level execution, depth and size, should be on the short list of those who can. Coach Few has his most talented team ever, and this could be the year they break through to the Final Four.