With Kyle Wiltjer taking aim from long distance, Gonzaga has seen little zone defense this season. “Less than 30 possessions,” coach Mark Few estimated.
That all changes Friday.
Gonzaga and its efficient offense take on Syracuse and its famed matchup zone when the only remaining double-digit seeds in the NCAA Tournament face off in the Midwest Regional semifinals. The Bulldogs are trying to get back to the final eight for the second consecutive year, while the Orange are on the brink of their first appearance in the fourth round since 2013.
Winners of seven in a row by an average of 14.7 points, Gonzaga (28-7) appears to be peaking at the right time. But no one plays defense like Syracuse (21-13) does anymore.
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“It’s going to be interesting just because you just — we don’t, and there really aren’t many teams in college basketball that play 40 minutes of zone, and I think that’s kind of the simple brilliance of the whole Syracuse plan,” Few said after the 11th-seeded Bulldogs practiced at the United Center on Thursday. “It’s kind of amazing in that regard.”
It has worked for coach Jim Boeheim for decades, to the tune of five Final Fours and a national championship for Carmelo Anthony and company in 2003. But this has been one strange season for Boeheim, who was suspended for nine games as one of the outcomes of an NCAA investigation that found a history of improper benefits and academic misconduct stretching back years.
The Orange dropped five of six down the stretch, putting their spot in the tournament in jeopardy. But they slipped in as a No. 10 seed, and then thumped Dayton and Middle Tennessee State in the first two rounds in St. Louis.
“I don’t really focus too much on the off-the-court stuff because every player, every team goes through that,” Boeheim said. “There’s always stuff that you don’t know about. But what happens on the court, this team has been up and down. We started out great, played great basketball and we slipped a little bit, and lost a couple tough games. Then we started to kind of get back playing well.”
Syracuse has allowed an average of 50.5 points and 30.8 percent shooting so far in the tournament, but Gonzaga has the perfect player to attack the Orange’s stifling zone in Wiltjer. The 6-foot-10 senior forward is a 49-percent shooter from 3-point range and averages a team-best 20.4 points.
“We just want to continue to play our game,” Wiltjer said. “They obviously are in zone, so for us big guys, we just have to find the seams.”
Finding spots to shoot is easy for Wiltjer, who has being doing that for years from long range.
“Fourth, fifth, sixth grade, all I could do was just bomb 30 (footers),” Wiltjer said earlier this season. “I was a gunner. I literally had 10 3’s in games; I would just jack them.”
Wiltjer’s game seemed to follow the Bulldogs’ up-and-down season. He scored 30 points or more in three consecutive games in January, only to score six points in a loss at St. Mary’s.
He was 2 of 17 shooting in a loss at SMU, but scored 29 points and carried the Bulldogs past BYU in the WCC semifinals.
In the second-round victory over Utah, Wiltjer got the Bulldogs started with 11 points in the first 8 1/2 minutes, then watched teammate Domantas Sabonis control the inside in his matchup with Jakob Poeltl.
“Strategically, I think we’ve played with more balance. That’s really helped us,” Few said. “I think early in the year we were getting such dominating performances from Domas and (Wiltjer), with the guards. It was on me also. We were really telling them to look inside, look inside, get these guys touches. We’re a much better team now.”
Wiljter knows what it takes on the big stage. He won a national title at Kentucky as a freshman, and after sitting out a year, he helped Gonzaga last season to its first Elite Eight since 1999. Now the Bulldogs are on the cusp of another special March run.
“Sometimes people think just in terms of our university, we may think of us as a small conference school, but I think we’ve really done a great job at just busting on that national scene, year-in, year-out,” Wiltjer said.
“We’ve been a little short in the Final Four, but every year we’re competitive, we play against great competition, we beat great competition, so I think we should be mentioned in some of the great schools.”