Gonzaga has already proven itself to be one of the best teams in the nation with its offensive prowess.
Its defense, though, is also making strides of improvement as the seventh-ranked Bulldogs go to Portland on Saturday night looking to complete a three-game road sweep of West Coast Conference opponents.
Coach Mark Few’s team ranks third in Division I in shooting at 52.5 percent, fourth in effective field goal percentage at 58.7 and 12th in scoring at 82.2 points per game. The Bulldogs (13-1, 2-0 WCC) are second to BYU in the WCC in scoring, but they opened up this road swing with an 87-80 victory at Provo, Utah, and then showed themselves capable of grinding out a slower-paced victory by stifling San Diego 60-48 on Monday.
”We guarded well,” Few said. ”I thought we were pretty darn efficient offensively against a team that really nobody’s been able to do that to all year.”
Though it was a season low in scoring for Gonzaga, which went 7:05 without a point in the second half, the defense limited the Toreros to 26.8 percent shooting. The Bulldogs are the only team in the WCC holding opponents under 40 percent for the season, and the 60.4 points per game allowed is also the best mark in the conference.
”That’s a huge key of ours. If we’re not scoring we’ve just got to be able to lock down defensively,” said Kyle Wiltjer, who scored 15 points. ”It was a pretty low-scoring game, so that was good for our defense to know that we can trust it.”
At 6-foot-10, Wiltjer and 7-1 center Przemek Karnowski often cause mismatches in the frontcourt, but this will be one of the few times the Zags will be at a size disadvantage. Coach Eric Reveno could start his trio of 6-11 players – Thomas van der Mars, Riley Barker and Volodymyr Gerun – for a second straight game after Portland (10-4, 1-1) split its first two WCC games on the road.
"It was something we did against UNLV and we’ve done it before," Reveno said after Monday’s 97-88 loss at BYU. "It’s our best rebounding lineup, so we’re trying to create an advantage and not just do what they want us to do. I was just trying to disrupt them early on and knew it wouldn’t sustain a long time, especially when our three big guys got in foul trouble."
Both teams are very strong controlling the boards – Gonzaga has a plus-10.0 margin per game while Portland enjoys a plus-7.5 advantage. Reveno’s trio did combine for 34 points and 17 rebounds against the Cougars, but the Pilots also allowed 11 offensive rebounds that led to 12 second-chance points.
Alec Wintering made 15 of 17 free throws and scored a career-high 30 in the loss, raising his average to a team-high 12.9 points. The sophomore guard is one of four Pilots players averaging at least 10.6 points.
Wintering had 14 points and was one of five players to finish in double figures in an 82-73 upset of the Zags in Portland on Jan. 9, when the Pilots ended a 20-game losing streak to Gonzaga. The Bulldogs salvaged a split of the season series with a 71-66 victory Feb. 5, their 35th in the last 37 games between the teams.
Though the Pilots are 7-55 all-time against ranked opponents, they have never beaten a top 10 team.