How do the Zags compare to the team that made a deep run last March?

click to enlarge Chet Holmgren's size scares every opposing guard. - ERICK DOXEY PHOTO

Erick Doxey photo

Chet Holmgren’s size scares every opposing guard.

It’s March in Spokane,

which means even the most disinterested sports fans are powerless to resist getting swept up in the Zag madness. If you find yourself in that position, fear not. We’ve got you covered. Haven’t watched the Zags since last March? Here’s a quick primer on how this year’s squad compares to that one.

First off, as is the case every season in college sports, there are new names and faces. Jalen Suggs, who hit the iconic buzzer-beater in the Final Four, and Joel Ayayi, the do-everything Frenchman, left early for the NBA. Headband-wearing senior leader Corey Kispert graduated and is in the NBA too — reunited in Washington, D.C., with former Gonzaga teammate Rui Hachimura.

Mainstays from last year’s team like Anton Watson (7.7 points per game), point guard Andrew Nembhard (11.7 ppg) and the mustachioed All-American Drew Timme (17.5 ppg) are still around this season. So is sophomore Julian Strawther (12.3 ppg), a bit player on last year’s team turned starter this season.

Fresh faces include talented freshmen led by 7-foot big man Chet Holmgren (14.2 ppg), the likely No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, as well as Seattle’s Nolan Hickman (5.4 ppg) and the bouncy, athletic Hunter Sallis (4.4 ppg), both of whom come off the bench but get decent minutes. Then there’s the speedy sharpshooter Rasir Bolton, a senior transfer from Iowa State who rounds out the Zags’ starting five alongside Timme, Holmgren, Strawther and Nembhard.

With the change in personnel came some changes in the style of play. Like last season, the Zags are once again an offensive juggernaut. That’s been head coach Mark Few’s calling card for more than two decades now.

Last year’s team led the nation in scoring at 91 points per game. This year’s team is ever so slightly off that pace at 87.8 per game, but that’s still good enough for tops in the country. The main difference on the offensive side of the ball is how the Zags are scoring their points. Once again, they’re dominant in the paint, but they’re getting more of their points from threes than they did a season ago.

That’s in large part due to the addition of Holmgren, who, despite his 7-foot size, is a dead-eye three-point shooter.

Holmgren alters the Zags more impressively, and importantly, on the defensive end, though. Last year’s team played a ton of “small ball” with Drew Timme as the only real big on the floor and four guards or wings surrounding him. As a result, the Zags weren’t great at protecting the rim. Last year’s squad recorded 90 blocks on the season. So far this season, the Zags have blocked 169 shots, with Holmgren alone accounting for 103 of them.

Gonzaga’s block party this season has vaulted the team to the top of the defensive rankings. The Zags rank second nationally in defensive efficiency, giving up 88.6 points per 100 possessions on average.

Perhaps the most notable difference between this year and last, though, isn’t something you’ll see on the court. Last year’s team spent the entire season ranked No. 1 in the polls. They entered March undefeated, with a ton of buzz about potentially running the table.

This year, the Zags enter March with three losses rather than zero. Though that might not be a bad thing. They’re No. 1 in the polls once again and have been for much of the season, but there isn’t the pressure of the perfect season looming over them this time around. ♦

Article Source: Inlander