PORTLAND – Four games into the West Coast Conference season, it’s apparent opponents are going deeper into the playbook when facing fifth-ranked Gonzaga.
Santa Clara, Pacific and Loyola Marymount were deliberate on offense, mindful of the shot clock and lowering the number of possessions against the high-powered Zags. Pacific was the most extreme, rarely initiating offense before the shot clock dropped below 10 seconds.
It hasn’t influenced the end result as Gonzaga cruised to wins in those three games, but expect more of the same when the Zags line up against Portland on Saturday at the sold-out Chiles Center.
Coaches are paid good money to put their teams in the best possible position, whether they’re heavy underdogs or favorites with a personnel advantage.
So what wrinkles will the last-place Pilots (7-12, 0-4 WCC) throw at the first-place Zags (17-2, 4-0)?
“I know they play lot of junk defenses and switch it up,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, admitting he was just beginning to study the Pilots after facing Loyola Marymount on Thursday. “Those guards were very good young players last year and I expect them to be considerably better this year.”
Portland could follow the lead of several of Gonzaga foes and try to shorten the game. The Pilots are 183rd in KenPom’s adjusted tempo (Loyola Marymount is in the 340s). Two of the Zags’ lowest-scoring games came against LMU (73) and Pacific (67), but they were still fairly efficient at the offensive end.
“Teams being scared of our offense,” point guard Josh Perkins said of GU’s lower point totals. “They’ve been trying to slow it down and make possessions a little lower, but our defense is making up the margin.”
Portland, which doesn’t have a senior on the roster, hasn’t scored more than 64 points since Dec. 8, a span of eight games. The backcourt represents most of the team’s limited experienced and they’ve provided the bulk of the scoring, led by Marcus Shaver Jr. (15.3 points), JoJo Walker (12.3) and Franklin Porter (7.0). Josh McSwiggan (11.6) can play the ‘3’ or ‘4.’
The frontcourt rotation of Tahirou Diabate, Theo Akwuba, Jacob Tyron and Hugh Hogland hasn’t provided steady contributions. Gonzaga, with Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Killian Tillie, figure to have a decided edge in the matchup.
For the first time this season, the Zags employed all three bigs together for a short stretch in the second half against LMU. Tillie was sidelined briefly with a cut on his lip earlier in the half.
Hachimura, an All-America candidate and standout on the Japanese national team, is familiar with two of the Pilots’ forwards. The 6-foot-9 Diabate, a native of Mali, played prep basketball in Japan. The 6-10 Hogland, who has dual citizenship, played for USA youth volleyball teams and has trained with the Japanese national basketball team.
This will be the lone meeting between GU and Portland with the WCC’s new 16-game schedule.
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