Zags' offense even better than it looks

Heard a TV announcer the other night note that Gonzaga was No. 4 in the nation in shooting percentage. Which elicited nothing much more than a “Meh.”

After all, two recent Zag squads – the 2019 Elite Eight team eliminated by Texas Tech, and the 2015 team ousted by Duke in the round of eight – led the nation in shooting, at .526 and .520, respectively.

At any rate, the citation of No. 4 led me to a deeper dive into shooting percentages, and this is the inescapable conclusion: Gonzaga is right now running spectacular offense, something far more revealing than a declaration that they’re No. 4 in the country in shooting.

Let’s start here: The Zags are no longer No. 4, but tops in the nation, thanks to having shot 60.3 percent against Dixie State Tuesday night.

So they’re fattening up on tomato cans, right? Ah, not so much. Against the five Power Six schools vanquished by GU – Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia – the Zags are shooting .5535, or just a tick under their nation-leading figure of .557. Their shooting percentage hasn’t really depended on whom they’re playing.

Another number of note: The next-highest school in the rankings that plays big-time basketball is Illinois, which is No. 8 at 53.1. To illustrate that point, the current runnerup to GU is Murray State at 55.6. Murray’s ranking got off to a boffo start against Division III Greenville University of Illinois, whom the Racers beat by the ludicrous score of 173-95, hitting 77 of 105 shots for a .733 percentage.

Given the trend in 2020-21, you’d have to say the Zags’ number has a fighting chance of staying relatively steady around 55 percent. And a traipse through the record book reflects what a remarkable number that would be.

Not since Duke’s 1992 national champions – 29 years ago – has a national leader in shooting percentage hit the 53-percent mark. As recently as a four-year stretch from 2011-14, the national leader shot only 50 and a fraction.

Meanwhile, a broad look at history is intriguing. The best years for shooting percentage came in the 1980s, topped by the NCAA record-holder, Missouri, in 1979-80. That year, absurdly, each of their top five Tiger scorers shot no worse than .541 – and three of them surpassed .600. Oddly, the leader, big man Steve Stipanovich, the No. 2 overall pick in the 1983 NBA draft, wasn’t one of them. The team shot .572.

Through the ‘80s, the national leader never dipped below 54 percent and frequently bobbed up to 56.

But in 1986-87 came the three-point shot. And while its impact wasn’t convulsive immediately, in time it became a serious weapon. Volume shooters by proponents like Rick Pitino coaxed more teams into buying in, and while that bumped up metrics like effective field-goal percentage, it dropped actual shooting percentages.

Other factors weighed against shooters and in favor of improved scouting, like Synergy Sports Technology, a service providing instant cut-ups of opponent offenses or individuals’ tendencies.

For much of this century, freshmen have exited for the NBA after one season, often in which they were unrefined players but prized for their potential.

Shooting percentages have thus stagnated. In fact, Gonzaga’s .526 of 2019 is the highest number since Florida had the same when it repeated a national championship in 2007.

What happens now for Gonzaga? Is the rarefied percentage sustainable? One number would seem to argue that it is: Despite a couple of phenomenal individual games – Jalen Suggs against Iowa and Corey Kispert against Virginia – GU is shooting only .346 from three-point range. Surely the ceiling is higher.

With league play starting this weekend, there are competing arguments for the overall shooting outlook. GU’s percentage could rise, given that most of the teams on its WCC schedule aren’t the equal of the Power Six teams it has dispatched. Or, there’s the fact that conference brethren know each other better, and especially by the rematch games, they’ve brainstormed ways to slow down offenses.

But if that Gonzaga number hovers near 55 percent, history will tell us what we can see with our own eyes: The Zags’ offense is something else.