San Diego State Aztecs vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs Game Preview


Credit: Don De Mars/ EVT Sports

Two heavyweight basketball programs will face each other Friday night as the San Diego State Aztecs travel to Spokane to take on the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Both consider themselves to be high-major programs in mid-major conferences. They are the only two West Coast teams to play for a national championship since UCLA did it in 2006. 

Gonzaga will be eager to show they are still the class of the region after SDSU’s run to the title game last season. They are coming off a 100-76 win against Jackson State and will be well-rested. 

The Aztecs have suffered through a number of lingering injuries this season but should hopefully be closer to full strength after a long break.

Their last game was a 74-60 win over Stanford last week. 


General observations

The Bulldogs are a very balanced team.

They currently rank 24th in offense and 26th in defense, according to KenPom. A staple of Mark Few teams is running on offense, and this team is no exception, as KenPom has them as the 31st fastest team in the nation in offense. The Bulldogs don’t force many turnovers; they are elite at gathering offensive rebounds and are at their best in the painted area on both ends of the floor. The only common opponent between the two teams is Washington. SDSU beat Washington in overtime 100-97 on a neutral floor. Gonzaga lost to Washington 78-73 on Washington’s home court. 

Guarding Gonzaga

As with any team that wants to play fast, defending them starts in transition. Gonzaga excels at collecting the defensive rebound and hitting the outlet pass up the floor for easy buckets. Getting back on defense and building a wall will be important in this game. 

Preventing second chances will be the other key factor. The Bulldogs are currently ranked 15th in the nation in terms of offensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom. Gathering their misses is vital for them and a large reason why their offense is so successful. Their primary tools for gathering offensive rebounds are duck ins and Gortat screens. Essentially, any time a defensive big man steps up to help, the Gonzaga big will step between his defender and the basket, ready to collect a missed shot. 

In the clip above, you will also see wing players back-cutting toward the basket at the shot. Following the win over Saint Katherine, Coach Dutcher spoke about making sure his players check to find their assignment before looking for the rebound. Hopefully, those lessons work, as Aztec defenders will need to make sure they are boxing out properly. If they assume their assignment is jogging down on defense, they’ll get burned. 

Those two aspects feed into the overall offensive philosophy Gonzaga employs, which is to score at the rim. Their sets are designed to get players layups or dunks, with jump shots as a second or third option. That is one area where the Aztecs’ pack line defense may be able to cause trouble. The Aztecs will often help from one pass away in order to close driving lanes, and that could disrupt the Bulldogs’ flow and lead to them taking bad shots. 

Besides the drive, the other way to get the ball into the paint is the pass, often to a post player but sometimes to a cutter. Gonzaga’s posts are led by a familiar face  Wyoming transfer Graham Ike. He currently ranks in the 85th percentile in post-up efficiency. 

While Jaedon LeDee hasn’t been a pushover in the post defensively, he hasn’t been elite either. The Aztecs will need to consider sending double teams and trying to force Ike to pass the ball out of the paint. 

The Bulldogs are also very good at disguising basket cuts. In the clip below, a Bulldog player sets up to set a weakside flare screen, lulling the defense, and then cuts into the paint and gets an easy layup. The Aztecs will need to be focused all game to prevent mistakes such as that. 

Ultimately, the goal will be to force Gonzaga into a slow, jump-shooting team. If the Aztecs can do that for 40 minutes in a hostile environment, they’ll have a chance. 

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Attacking Gonzaga

Gonzaga’s primary man-to-man defense is a hedging defense. The defensive big man steps out to prevent drives and stays there until the primary defender recovers to their man. Until that happens, there is a split second where an SDSU player will be open for a pass. If the backside rotation is slow, it will be the roll man. If the rotation is on time, there will be a wing player open. Reading the defense in real time to decide where the pass should go will be critical. The wrong decision can result in a turnover, as can the right decision made a half second too fast or too slow. 

UConn had a lot of success with side pick and rolls against Gonzaga. The Aztecs don’t typically run many side pick and rolls, but it is something they should consider for this game. A side pick and roll with a shooter in the strong side corner can devastate a hedging defense. LeDee’s roll gravity will force the corner defender to rotate, leaving the corner wide open for a shot, as seen in the clip below. 

Hedges are by no means the only defense Gonzaga will use. They mix up their coverages in an attempt to keep the offense off balance. They will sometimes play screens straight up. When they do this, the defensive big man will get as tight as he can with the screener, attempting to push them off their spot. This does two things. First, it can change the angle the ball handler has to take. Second, it lets the defender move in a straighter line when going under the screen, so they don’t lose momentum moving around people. 

A 2-3 zone is also a look the Aztecs should expect to see. The key to beating the 2-3 zone is getting the ball to the “nail,” the spot right in the middle of the free throw line, and then making the right decision on what to do as the defense reacts. LeDee’s decisions will be crucial in those moments. If his defender stays back, he can hit that mid-range jump shot. If his defender closes out, LeDee can put the ball on the floor and attack. If a different defender closes out, his job is to pass to an open player in the space the defender just vacated. 

In those situations, LeDee usually opts to score, and more often than not, it works out for him. 

Last, in post defense, Gonzaga will often try a three-quarter top coverage, attempting to deny the entry and shade the offensive player toward defensive help. Quick passes can change the angle of the entry passes to allow the post player, usually LeDee, an easier catch with a deep position. Getting a few of those easier looks will be beneficial, as LeDee can score and draw fouls in those situations. 

Play to watch- Chicago Series

Gonzaga runs a lot of variations of the Chicago action. Aztec fans should recognize it by now. 

In the example pictured below, they run a Chicago action followed by a Ram screen to try to get Ike open. Washington covers both of the cutters well but leaves Watson, the screener, open in the middle of the floor. Actions like this are designed to confuse the defense. Washington covered the first two options well, and even though the third option was open, it was the shot they were the most content to give up.

Players to watch

Graham Ike, #13, 14.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists

Ike will be familiar to Aztec fans as he transferred to Gonzaga from Wyoming. He is a brilliant post player who commands double teams down low and is the leading rebounder on the team. He had ten points and ten rebounds in his last game against SDSU. 

Ryan Nembhard, #0, 12 points, 4 rebounds, 5.4 assists

Nembhard will also be familiar to Aztec fans, as he transferred to Gonzaga from Creighton. He had seven points and four rebounds in the Elite Eight match against SDSU last season and committed the key foul that sent Darrion Trammell to the line at the end of the game. Expect him to be looking for redemption. Nembhard is a floor general who has an amazing ability to finish at the rim through contact. 

Anton Watson, #22, 14.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists

The 5th year senior is arguably the best player on the team. His blend of size, skill, intelligence, and athleticism give him an amazing amount of versatility and make him nearly impossible to shut down. He can score the ball inside and out, is a good passer, and is a plus defender. 

X-Factor- Transition play

Gonzaga averages almost 21 points per game in transition. They play fast and score a lot because of it. If the Aztecs can hold them to half that total, it will help them out a lot. The Aztecs shouldn’t be looking to get into a track meet against Gonzaga at elevation. If they can slow the game down and execute in the half-court, they have a shot to limit Gonzaga’s points and steal a win on the road. 

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