In an unremarkable year, Zags still an eye-catcher

A pro scout I’ve known for a long time lamented the other day the state of the college game in 2020 – the mediocrity of it. He said he wasn’t viewing it from the lens of pro prospects available, but merely the quality of play. If he were issuing grades, he said, the best teams he’s seen – and he’s seen most of them, many more than once – wouldn’t rate more than a 79 or 81 on a scale of 100.

All of it dovetails with a national narrative that there are no great teams, and that this is a year of uncommon balance.

We didn’t discuss Gonzaga. I would assume GU would rate near the top of his list, and that ranking would be founded on its offensive acumen. For sheer precision, unselfishness and – for a lack of a better phrase – intuitive purpose, it’s hard to beat Gonzaga, and its nation-leading 120.1 (points per 100 possessions) offensive ranking in Ken Pomeroy’s statistics.

Up front, a disclaimer: There remain warts with this basketball team. Albeit improved defensively, it doesn’t scream that that element is sufficient to get the Zags to Atlanta and a Final Four berth. The foul shooting is occasionally cringe-worthy. The depth teeters on the edge of alarming, and you wonder if GU doesn’t need somebody like Martynas Arlauskas to emerge and be able to provide a yeoman 10 minutes if called upon two months from now.

But oh, that offense.

Obviously, it isn’t breaking news that Gonzaga runs good offense. That’s always been in the DNA of Mark Few. Go back to 2006, the Adam Morrison-mania year, and Gonzaga was No. 2 in KenPom offensive numbers (it was also a gag-inducing 174th in defense).

Last year, the Zags were No. 1 nationally in offensive efficiency at 124.5. Dating to 2013 – the first No. 1 seed year, the first No. 1 ranking year – Gonzaga has now occupied a top-five spot in offense four times.

But last year, Gonzaga had two uber-athletes up front in Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura. That meant a lot of offense at close range was created by athleticism.

The loss of those two players, plus Zach Norvell and Josh Perkins, would lend to the assumption that the Zags wouldn’t purr like a fine German engine in 2019-20. That it has – at least at one end – is a testament to the coaching wiles of Few and his staff.

They’ve always said they place a high premium on skill – on the ability to pass and shoot. But there has to be more than that. A lot of players are good passers and unselfish.

Remember that the backcourt for this Zag edition consists of two grad transfers with destinations unknown at the start of last May, plus a player (Joel Ayayi) who averaged 5.6 minutes a game last year. From that, from the guys who handle the ball the most – voila! – the nation’s leading offense in 2020.

I watch other teams, and there’s a randomness about their attack. Washington, understandably, wants to get the ball to Isaiah Stewart regularly. The rest of the time, shots go up for no apparent reason, other than maybe “I probably need to shoot it right about now.” Oregon State, with a veteran squad and a Pac-12 player-of-the-year candidate in Tres Tinkle, is an unremarkable 36th in offense, and the shots go up seemingly without regard for the notion that something better may await.

This Gonzaga team seems to know the difference between meh, good and better. Only occasionally do you see the imprudent shot. Players seem preternaturally willing to see an offensive sequence through to its logical conclusion, rather than rush up something low-percentage. It’s all in the numbers – six players in double figures, a .508 team percentage (fourth nationally), .391 from three (ninth) and a gaudy 1.63 assist-turnover ratio.

The Zags may get tested this week at Santa Clara (17-5), which you’d figure is tired of getting absolutely trucked by Gonzaga, and at USF (15-7). If you’re a Zag fan, you hope for defense, and appreciate the offense.