FORMER GONZAGA All-America Adam Morrison, who led the nation in scoring in 2005--06, used to wear a T-shirt that his coach, Mark Few, wasn't crazy about. It read IF IT WASN'T FOR OFFENSE I'D PLAY DEFENSE. Like many jokes, it contained an element of bitter truth.
The Zags went 29--4 that season and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. They were a scoring juggernaut, ranking first in the nation in offensive efficiency (1.15), a measure of points scored per possession that stats guru Ken Pomeroy calls the best indicator of offensive success. But that team also ranked 223rd in defensive efficiency (1.04), which may help explain its third-round loss to UCLA. This season Gonzaga is again riding high—it was 6--0 at week's end and ranked No. 4 in the latest AP poll—but with an altered identity.
The Zags' goal every year is to allow fewer than 0.90 points per defensive possession. "We've never been below that in the past 10 years," says Jerry Krause, the Zags' 71-year-old director of basketball operations and resident efficiency charter. (He's not related to the former Chicago Bulls G.M. of the same name.) The goal is not an arbitrary benchmark. Since Pomeroy began tracking efficiency in 2004, every national champion's defense has been sub-0.90. Against Indiana last Saturday the Zags allowed just 0.78 points per possession in a 70--54 win, and on the season—which already includes wins over Oklahoma State, Maryland and Tennessee—they were averaging 0.82, eighth best in the nation, while the offense was ranked 63rd, at 1.08.
How did this sea change occur? Gonzaga now overwhelms opponents with an oversized lineup, which features 6'8" senior guard Micah Downs, a long-armed stopper on the perimeter ("I feel good when he's on somebody, because he can really move his feet," Few says), and 6'11" sophomore forward Austin Daye, an eraser in the paint. ("He has a ridiculous amount of blocks  for someone who [only] jumps three inches off the ground," says 6'5" guard Steven Gray, the Zags' valuable sixth man.)
December 15, 2008
Everyone contributes to the lockdown D, though. Senior point guard Jeremy Pargo and freshman backup Demetri Goodson extend the pressure on opposing ballhandlers, and 6'11", 260-pound center Josh Heytvelt anchors the middle. "We don't have a weak defender out there," says assistant coach Leon Rice.
The Zags keep the heat on by using a nine-man rotation and a variety of defenses, which include man-to-man, a 2--3 matchup zone and a multitude of presses. Together they've held opponents to just 34.4% shooting, fifth best in the country.
Heytvelt, a redshirt senior who arrived in 2004, said the old Zags "liked offense too much." They also haven't made it past the Sweet 16 since 1999. The new Zags are better equipped for tournament play, and their confidence was evident during a tight battle with Oklahoma State on Thanksgiving Day. As the Cowboys hit a barrage of threes to keep the game close, Krause leaned over and told Few, "Hang in there. We're going to win it with our defense."
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