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One of the more interesting things Jim Meehan said in our interview yesterday is that if the Cougs want to push the tempo tonight, he fully expects the Zags to be more than willing dance partners.
This doesn't come as a huge surprise -- the Zags have averaged right around 69 possessions over the past few years despite virtually every team they play in conference deliberately trying to slow them down. In an ideal world, Gonzaga wants to play a game with possessions in the high 70s.
Of course, it doesn't always work out that way. If a team wants to slow the game down, they generally can -- after all, it was Mark Few who last year said his team would love to turn up the tempo on the Cougs, but it takes two to tango, and he didn't expect the Cougs to do that since they had slowed the game down to historic proportions the year before.*
*Unfortunately for us, the Cougs actually were all-too-eager to indulge the Zags last year by putting up their third-worst shooting night of the year (allowing a lot of defensive rebounds to become transition opportunities) and turning the ball over in one out of five possessions (also leading to transition opportunities) on their way to WSU's third-fastest game of the year (65 possessions). But I digress.
Well, these Cougs most definitely don't want to slow it down. Beyond the fact that it's just Ken Bone's preferred style to get up and down the floor, this team also has struggled in half court sets for the better part of the year. Much of that can be blamed on youth; when you run a motion offense as Bone does, experience is important, given that an ill-timed screen or a missed cut can undermine the entire set.
Which is why I think the Zags might be making a mistake if they want to make tonight's contest into a race.
There's an old saying in coaching that a team should never get away from what it does best, and there's little doubt that what the Zags have done the best over the years is get out and run. But the advantage Gonzaga would hold in an uptempo contest over the young and athletic Cougs is much smaller than the advantage they'd hold in a half court contest.
Think about it: If your defense is designed to slow down Klay Thompson, is it easier to find that one guy in a half court set, or in transition? It goes without saying that Klay should have an easier time finding looks in a fast-paced game.
Additionally, the Cougs' most glaring weakness is in the frontcourt. Defending post players and defensive rebounding are going to be a major, major issues for this team all year long. Gonzaga has a decided advantage on both counts, with 7-foot Robert Sacre and 6-11 Kelly Olynyk. If those two share the floor with 6-foot-8 Elias Harris, that's a tough load for the Cougs to handle. Heck, if even two of them are on the floor at the same time, that's a huge advantage, given that one of them likely will be guarded by either Abe Lodwick or Nik Koprivica.
But if Gonzaga gets into an up-and-down game with WSU, I think that mitigates our defensive rebounding issues a bit. While we have had issues boxing out bigger offensive players in halfcourt sets, we have demonstrated an ability to offensive rebound with quickness and agility. Defensive rebounding in transition is a lot more like offensive rebounding than it is like defensive rebounding in the half court. I think a running game makes our rebounding deficiencies smaller.
It's probably true that Gonzaga is the better team. But if it's true that the Zags really do want to get into an uptempo contest with the Cougs, I think it gives them a puncher's chance to knock out a ranked team on their own home court.