Gonzaga goes down (again) under a barrage of 3s

Probably need a different game plan, coach. - Streeter Lecka

Since there obviously is some interest around here in that little school to the north, here are some thoughts on the Bulldogs' epic failure in the NCAA tournament.

It's no secret that I don't care very much for Gonzaga. Of course some of that has to do with losing to them a bunch, because that totally sucks, but it mostly has to do with the ethos around the program becoming pretty unsufferable over the past 15 years.

I'm not really going to get into the particulars of all that here, since it's only marginally relevant to this piece. It's just sort of full disclosure, because while I'm going to attempt to be impartial here, I'll understand if the CougZags in the audience don't see it that way.

Much has been made of Wichita State's crazy three-point shooting, and how the Shockers scored an insane 19 points in seven possessions. After reading a bunch of stuff in the immediate aftermath, it seems the general consensus is -- like the photo of Mark Few above -- "Welp, what are you going to do when a team hits seven consecutive threes?" For example:

I haven't verified the math, but I think we all can agree that it's incredibly unlikely that any team will hit seven consecutive threes. And while numbers are just numbers, and numbers can't infer anything, I suppose one inference a human could make is that Gonzaga just got exceptionally unlucky.

One man who drew that conclusion? College Basketball Prospectus contributor Dan Hanner, a man whose work I respect tremendously:

In 14 years, Mark Few has won 12 WCC titles at Gonzaga. But in 14 years, Mark Few has never made it to the Elite Eight. You can say all you want about how this is bad coaching. If Mark Few really had Gonzaga playing great basketball, they would have led by more than 7 points late in the game. If Mark Few's teams really played elite defense, Gonzaga wouldn't give up runs like this.

But really that is all hyperbole. How do you make sure 4 separate guys don't get hot from the perimeter in a short-stretch. What coaching adjustment are you supposed to make? 19 points in 4 minutes and 34 seconds. Sometimes, even for the best coaches in the world, basketball isn't fair.

I actually have an answer for Hanner's rhetorical question. But before I get to that, I think it's a little much to be so dismissive of Few's results as simply "not fair." We always caution against small sample conclusions around here, and if we were just looking at last night in a vaccuum, we'd do the same. However, that's a lot of early exits, which makes me much less likely to dismiss last night's result as simply the vagaries of a single-elimination tournament.

I'm not going to try and make some grand proclamation about why it is that Gonzaga has underachieved over the last decade and a half -- I don't know that this analysis applies to all their early losses -- but as a fan of a team who has gotten "exceptionally unlucky" with regards to opponent three-point shooting for like four years, I can speak a little bit to the role that plays.

I've referenced Ken Pomeroy's work on three-point defense a number of times -- and I promise, I'm going to fully flesh it out at some point with regards to WSU's problems defending the three -- but the gist of his well-researched conclusion is this: The only way to truly prevent a team from making a three is to prevent a team from even taking a three in the first place.

It's a pretty contrarian conclusion, given that I think most coaches believe they can truly influence opponents' three-point percentage. For evidence of that, look no further than Gonzaga's own coaching staff (h/t to Pomeroy for sending this along to me):

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Six hours before tipoff of Saturday's most interesting college basketball game, Gonzaga assistant Ray Giacoletti was in his office preparing for shootaround. I stopped by. We talked. I eventually asked for his thoughts on Illinois, at which point Giacoletti described Brandon Paul as an NBA guard, John Groce as a coach whose players have bought in and the Illini in general as a dangerous opponent because of their ability to shoot 3-pointers.

"We're not gonna stop them from taking them," Giacoletti said. "But we have to keep them from making them."

Simply put, Gonzaga did not.

The Illini made 11 of its 26 3-point attempts.

If you watched last night's game and were being intellectually honest, you'd have to admit that there was little to be done to stop Wichita State from hitting those shots, just like if you watched Iowa State come back on Ohio State this morning, you'd have to conclude the same thing. Unless you crowd the shooters to the point that they'll pass up the shot.

And therein I think lies the biggest problem for the Zags -- or any team that allows a lot of three-point attempts as a matter of philosophy. (Gonzaga has consistently been among the nation's "leaders" in ratio of three-point attempts allowed under Few, including 21st most this year -- the Bulldogs' highest mark under Few.) By allowing three-point attempts -- which are game-changers by nature of their being worth 50 percent more than twos -- you increase the variance and essentially roll the dice.

Sometimes when you roll the dice, you come up snake eyes. And if your charge is to win six consecutive games, you probably shouldn't be relying on all six of your opponents to miss a bunch of those threes you let them take. At some point, someone is going to have an outlier performance from deep against you, dramatically increasing your chances of suffering an upset.

If you don't like being called a "choker," don't roll the dice -- change the game to something that puts the probabilities more under your control. Until Gonzaga does that, they're going to be vulnerable to upsets like the one we saw last night.

EDIT: So, a smart reader in the comments asked if the same thing happened against Southern. To be honest, I only watched the last 10 minutes or so of that game, so I didn't even think to look. I should have! Turns out, yes -- Southern did, in fact, shoot 10-of-23 from three. And those 23 attempts made up exactly half of the Jaguars' field goal attempts.

Southern only hit 35 percent of its twos, versus 44 percent of its threes and the funny thing is that Southern has been stronger on threes (37 percent, 56th nationally) than twos (46 percent, 237th) all year. No way Gonzaga should have been allowing Southern to chuck all those threes when there was a high probability that the only way the Jaguars were going to be able to threaten them was with a good shooting performance.

All told, Gonzaga allowed its opponents to shoot threes on over half of their field goal attempts! While it's unfortunate and probably unlucky that both teams shot well from deep, the point remains -- and likely is strengthened: Don't play with fire if you're trying to avoid getting burned. (Or some other pithy cliche about risk.)

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