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January 2, 2009

Gonzaga Goes Off Track

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 3:36 am

Three weeks ago yesterday, my colleague John Gasaway was using this space to describe Gonzaga as emerging as the second-best team in the country after North Carolina. Despite a loss to Arizona, the Zags had a chance to bolster their case a week and a half ago, when they led Connecticut by three in the closing seconds before falling apart in OT after A.J. Price‘s tying three. Since Price’s shot, it’s all been downhill.

Last Tuesday, Gonzaga suffered just the third home loss in the five-year history of the McCarthey Athletic Center. Which of the Bulldogs’ challenging non-conference opponents dealt this setback? Portland State, a team which could be dangerous in the NCAA Tournament as the heavy favorite to repeat as Big Sky champs, but not exactly a college basketball force. That was followed by Wednesday’s one-point loss at Utah, Gonzaga’s third straight and fourth in five games since starting 7-0 with five wins over power-conference teams.

Analyzing the losses is difficult because there doesn’t seem to be an obvious common thread. Defending the three-point line has been a major issue for the Zags, especially against Arizona (7-of-10 from downtown) and Portland State (12-of-31, 38.7 percent). But Gonzaga held the Utes to a 96.5 Offensive Rating despite surrendering nine three-pointers. It was the Bulldogs’ offense that started celebrating New Year’s Eve a little too early, as Gonzaga posted a 37.1 percent effective field-goal percentage.

One disturbing trend has been Austin Daye‘s poor shooting. The potential NBA lottery pick is 9-of-29 from the field over the last two games. For the season, he’s hitting 28.9 percent of his threes, down from 41.3 percent accuracy as a freshman. That might be OK if Daye was taking the ball inside more frequently to compensate, but his three rate is actually up slightly (to 28.1 percent of his attempts from the field), while he’s getting to the free-throw line half as often as he did a year ago. The Zags need Daye to get it going.

With West Coast Conference play on the horizon, Gonzaga won’t have many more chances to prove itself before the NCAA Tournament. Though St. Mary’s has a solid chance of making the WCC a multi-bid conference once again, San Diego has been a disappointment in non-conference play and lost standout point guard Brandon Johnson for the season to a torn Achilles. The Zags have two marquee non-conference showdowns left on the schedule, visiting Tennessee Tuesday in a rematch of their win in the finals of the Old Spice Classic and hosting Memphis on Feb. 7. The outcome of those two games will go a long ways toward determining whether Gonzaga reemerges as a legit contender or is resigned to a lower seed come March.

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