Gonzaga is not the same team as the past two seasons. Star players like Chet Holmgren and Jalen Suggs left as NBA lottery picks, and Gonzaga even lost at home to Loyola Marymount.
One look at the numbers points out the weakness: defense. By my adjusted points per possession, Gonzaga ranks 74th after top 10 campaigns the past two seasons.
Perhaps Gonzaga will get better at defense in the tournament. This crop of youngsters can’t find the effort every possession, but maybe the increased intensity in the Big Dance will lead to better defense.
To study this, let’s look at how my metrics have predicted past tournament performance. Based on points per possession in the regular season, I calculate an offensive and defense rating for each team.
From these metrics, I make a prediction for points per possession in tournament games. Let’s compare these predictions to the actual efficiencies in tournament games.
At first, I looked at the last four tournaments and found that the average prediction was off by less than one point in 100 possessions each year. This is a good sign that my algorithms work.
To determine whether poor defensive teams played better in the tournament, I looked at these predictions in games with a defense that ranked worse than 25th.
Here are the results by tournament year, and a negative number implies the defense did better than expected.
- 2022, -0.06
- 2021, -1.73
- 2019, 1.55
- 2018, -3.50
This is promising, as overall these poor defenses get a point per 100 possessions better in the tournament over these four tournaments. About 60% of defenses met the criteria of being outside the top 25 in my defensive metrics.
The problem is that the answer changes over a longer time span. When I look at the past eight tournaments, these poor defensive teams gave up 1.28 points per 100 possessions more, not less, than expected. These results come from the prior years.
- 2017, 5.17
- 2016, 1.93
- 2015, 1.71
- 2014, 5.21
In each of these tournaments, poor defenses gave up significantly more points per possession than expected based on pre-tourney metrics. A part of this increase might come from increased fouling at the end of games, as teams get more desperate in elimination games.
This study gives no clear signal that a poor defense will improve in the tournament.
This is not a good omen for Gonzaga. This team struggles to defend the dribble drive and switch on the pick and roll. Not to pick on any one player, but offensive star Drew Timme either lacks the physical ability or effort to play good defense.
However, Gonzaga is the best offensive team in the nation by my adjusted points per possession. Could they make a deep run by out-scoring other teams? They did in a 100-90 win over Alabama earlier this season.
The offensive wizardry makes Gonzaga a fun team to watch in 2023. But despite their performance against St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference tournament final, don’t expect the defense to get better.
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