Elias Harris, Cole Dickerson

Don’t forget about Gonzaga when discussing the best teams out west

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The off-season has been a good one for west coast college basketball, a much-needed change given the struggles of the region’s most prestigious basketball league.

Many have rushed to declare the Pac-12 as being “back” thanks to the recruiting hauls brought in by Arizona and UCLA, not to mention the wealth of experience due back at Stanford.

In the Mountain West it’s been UNLV, a team that’s loaded with talent when looking at both returnees and newcomers, and San Diego State hasn’t been far behind in the chatter either.

But for all the excitement being drummed up by those programs, it’s important that people don’t ignore the region’s most consistent program over the last decade.

That would be Gonzaga, who in spite of the graduation of guard Marquise Carter and big man Robert Sacre will have enough talent back to improve upon their 26-7 mark of a season ago.

“Maybe a little bit. A lot of those big-time schools have accomplished a lot in the past,” said senior forward Elias Harris, who took part in the LeBron James Skills Academy last weekend, when asked if the Bulldogs are being overlooked.

Harris averaged 13.1 points and a team-best 8.5 rebounds per game last season, shooting 50.2% from the field and 41.4% from beyond the arc.

While losing Sacre takes away some valuable size for the Bulldogs, it may open things up for Harris from a responsibility standpoint.

“I need to be that type of player that can out-hustle guys,” said Harris. “That’s what I was trying to do: out-hustle guys, get rebounds, try to stop people on the defensive end and that helps you get better on the offensive end.”

In addition to Harris up front the Bulldogs welcome back Sam Dower and Guy Landry Edi, and the return of 7-footer Kelly Olynyk from a redshirt season will help account for the loss of Sacre.

And given how well point guard Kevin Pangos played as a freshman it’s going to be interesting to see how he progresses with a year of experience under his belt (the same goes for Gary Bell, Jr.).

Defensively the Bulldogs won’t wow people with the steals and blocks, but they didn’t last season and ranked 34th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (per Ken Pomeroy’s website).

But while the debate of who the best team in the western United States is one that will be on the radar of many college basketball fans, the first thing for Gonzaga will be to reclaim the top spot in the WCC.

Saint Mary’s, who loses Rob Jones but returns a number of key contributors led by point guard Matthew Dellavedova, won the regular season and postseason tournament crowns last season.

BYU should also be formidable despite losing Noah Hartsock thanks to the return of Matt Carlino and Brandon Davies, and Loyola Marymount has one of the nation’s best guards in Anthony Ireland.

The climb back to the top certainly won’t come without its challenges for Mark Few’s program, but they’ve got the pieces in place to get it done.

Raphielle is also the assistant editor at CollegeHoops.net and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
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Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
Associated Press
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When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.