Zags decided: Make theirs a double

Just about every sentence rehashing Gonzaga’s latest joust with Saint Mary’s has included the term “double-teams,” to which Tommy Lloyd finds himself saying, “What’s the big deal?”

After all, Gonzaga, with Mark Few as head coach and Lloyd as assistant, have now faced Saint Mary’s, with Randy Bennett as head man, a staggering 45 times. That’s Dean Smith-Mike Krzyzewski repetition, with seemingly every conceivable move and counter.

But the big deal was this: In a spot when it seemed that Saint Mary’s might be wresting West Coast Conference supremacy from the Zags -- when it seemed the Gaels might be at the program’s all-time apex -- Gonzaga delivered a searing, 78-65 welt to Saint Mary’s Saturday night that was more emphatic than the score suggests.

On Feb. 1, a story in Bay Area papers made a credible case that this is Saint Mary’s best team in history. Another account quoted Bennett on opponents’ supreme dilemma of trying to neutralize big man Jock Landale or his supporting cast, which have combined to lead the nation in field-goal percentage.

Gonzaga’s answer was to clinicize -- my word, not Webster’s -- the Gaels. Consider that that once GU had broken from the gate to an 11-4 lead, the game would never again feature less than a three-possession
margin. Or that when Corey Kispert’s attempted three from the corner swirled out, it deprived Gonzaga of a 20-point lead less than eight minutes into the game.

“The program has a lot of pride,” Lloyd said Monday. “Our backs were against the wall.”

Not that Saint Mary’s doesn’t have a lot of pride as well. And not that there won’t be ample occasions to prove it, probably starting with a seemingly inevitable third meeting in March in the WCC tournament.

But this was jarring stuff, at the same level in my mind as the 82-59 blowout of Utah in the NCAA tournament two years ago, when Gonzaga was a No. 11 seed and Utah was a 3.

It was keyed, of course, by the Zags’ aggressive double-team of Landale in the post, and make no mistake, that’s a tape that’s going to be worn out by opponents seeking to pick the lock on Saint Mary’s black box in March.

Lloyd expresses some surprise at the post-game emphasis placed on the double teams. But that’s what happens when a stratagem holds Landale to just four shots.

As he explains it, Gonzaga has had that tool in the box. But against past Saint Mary’s centers Omar Samhan and Brad Waldow, the Zags had sufficiently imposing posts in Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk to mostly stay away from the double.

Too, because Landale abused the Zags for 26 points in Saint Mary’s 74-71 victory last month in Spokane, there’s a tendency to recollect that he was incessantly backing Johnathan Williams down for baskets. A lot of his damage came on pick-and-roll action and thus wasn’t very applicable to double-teams.

However it happened then, as Lloyd says, “He kicked our ass.”

When the Zags did double in the first meeting, it looked either (a) late, or (b) half-hearted.

“I felt we needed to get our double there quicker,” Lloyd told me Monday. “And we needed something way more aggressive.”

When Landale caught the ball on the block in this latest rendition of Zags-Gaels, with Williams or Rui Hachimura pushing him away as much as allowed, he was rushed by a second defender. Here’s how the first half-dozen double-teams unfolded:

-- Zach Norvell, joining Williams.

-- Killian Tillie, with Williams.

-- Williams, in concert with Hachimura.

-- Tillie, with Hachimura.

-- Kispert, with Hachimura.

-- Silas Melson, converging with Williams.

“It wasn’t like we invented a new defense,” said Lloyd. “When someone is better than you (in the first meeting), you have to come out and be more aggressive and try something with conviction, not hope. Our guys started feeling it was working and started believing in it.”

It seemed to fluster Landale, so they kept doing it.

It was suggested in some quarters that it was merely the failure of Saint Mary’s perimeter shooters -- five of 20 on threes -- that made it all look good. Well, only to a point. Most of those threes were contested with quick rotations. Often, the double teams on Landale resulted in him passing to the same side as his field of vision, which resulted in another perimeter pass to the next man, and the methodical response by Saint Mary’s helped the quicker Zags recover defensively.

When two programs have met 45 times, some things have to remain house secrets. When I asked Lloyd about preparation for the double-teams approach, he said, “We’ve worked on it a few times the past few weeks.”

You can probably infer that 10 minutes of prepping for Pepperdine may have gone by the boards in favor of banking some time for a random opponent with a dangerous big guy.

By Monday, everything looked different, although Gonzaga’s path to a WCC regular-season title is still tougher than Saint Mary’s, with trips to BYU and San Diego. But suddenly, the Zags could be hunting a preferred seed in the NCAA tournament, which would probably mean a favorable site in Boise (the other Western sub-regional is in San Diego).

First things first. As Lloyd insists, there’s a good bit of territory before a possible third game with Saint Mary’s.

“If we do play ‘em again,” he said, “I’m sure they’re going to have something up their sleeve, and they’ll make adjustments.”

Count on it. Because this last one left a mark.