No. 9 Gonzaga’s improvement defensively is why people should buy their Final Four potential



Gonzaga head coach Mark Few (Getty Images)

TUCSON — In winning 29 games a season ago, No. 9 Gonzaga was able to combine a solid offensive attack with a level of play on the defensive end that was better than many had grown accustomed to seeing. From an efficiency standpoint Gonzaga ranked 15th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency per, the program’s best ranking in that category during Mark Few’s tenure as head coach, and they also limited opponents to 39.8% shooting from the field and 31.8% shooting from beyond the arc.

Yet even with those numbers being what they were there was doubt regarding the Bulldogs’ chances of beating the nation’s best teams, as their overall schedule lacked opportunities against high-level competition. Gonzaga would play just one game against a ranked team last season, and that was their loss to Arizona in the NCAA tournament.

With that, and the fact that the Bulldogs haven’t reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2009, there are some skeptics when it comes to discussing this current group’s chances of making a run at the program’s first Final Four appearance. However if there’s anything to be taken from their tough 66-63 overtime loss at No. 3 Arizona, it’s that the Bulldogs should be considered every bit capable of doing just that.

The biggest reason why: this group has defended at a level that most of Few’s past Gonzaga teams have been incapable of reaching.

And even though there was certainly a high level of respect for Gonzaga ahead of their meeting Saturday, Arizona head coach Sean Miller noticed a difference in Few’s squad.

“We played Gonzaga because they’re one of the great programs in college basketball,” Miller said following the win. “And to be candid I didn’t anticipate them having even as good of a team as they have, because adding [Domantas] Sabonis and Byron Wesley as late as they did gives them, to me, that ‘next level’ type of team.”

Of course the way in which Gonzaga finished that game, scoring just one field goal over the final 9:05, wasn’t pretty. But even with that drought the Bulldogs were right in there, going toe-to-toe with an Arizona team that’s been afforded the respect worthy of a national title contender. Gonzaga’s defense, even with Arizona shooting 60 percent from the field in the second half, had a lot to do with that. Arizona broke even in assist-to-turnover ratio (13 assists, 13 turnovers), and for the game they shot just over 44 percent from the field.

And those numbers were far superior to what Gonzaga was able to produce during the teams’ NCAA tournament game last season.

On that day Arizona beat Gonzaga by the final score of 84-61, and the fact of the matter is that the game wasn’t all that close. The Wildcats led by as much as 28 on that day, limiting the Bulldogs to 40.7% shooting and forcing 21 Gonzaga turnovers. Arizona was even better offensively, shooting 49.2% from the field and racking up 24 assists to just six turnovers.

“Last year they destroyed us in the NCAA tournament, but it’s a different year and a different team,” Gonzaga junior center Przemek Karnowski told after the game. “We remembered that we were simply destroyed by them, and I think we really fought [Saturday].”

For Gonzaga, the improved health of guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. and Few having more options to turn two are the differences between last season and this one. Thanks in part to the addition of the likes of Sabonis, Wesley and Kyle Wlitjer the Bulldogs are more diverse offensively, with Wiltjer giving them a four capable of stepping out onto the perimeter and Wesley filling a void on the wing the Bulldogs were unable to adequately address in 2013-14.

Gonzaga didn’t shoot as well as they would have liked Saturday, with Wiltjer needing 16 shot attempts to score 15 points and Pangos limited to eight points on 3-for-10 shooting. Yet even with that being the case, their defense not only kept the Bulldogs afloat but also had them in position to earn what would have been one of the most impressive wins of the season to date.

Will Gonzaga need to do a better job of finding quality looks down the stretch? Yes, but it isn’t as if that was a serious issue entering Saturday’s game. Against Arizona the Bulldogs encountered challenges they’d yet to face this season, and despite not playing their best Gonzaga nearly overcame them. In the end Gonzaga went home with a loss, but they also returned to Spokane with experiences that will only help them as the season wears on.

“It’s a great experience,” Few noted. “Obviously we wanted to finish it off, and we felt like we should have finished it off. We just let it slip away. We’ve been scheduling games like this since I’ve been the head coach.

“That’s what college basketball is all about.”

Despite the outcome, the question of whether or not this current group of Bulldogs was equipped to take on such a test was answered in the affirmative.

UConn adds former Rutgers guard Cam Spencer from transfer portal

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STORRS, Conn. — National champion UConn added some shooting depth to its roster Friday, announcing the signing of former Rutgers guard Cam Spencer from the transfer portal.

Spencer, who graduated last month with a year of eligibility remaining, averaged 13.2 points in his only season in New Jersey. The 6-foot-4 guard, who played his first three seasons at Loyola of Maryland, shot 44.4% from the floor, including 43.4% from 3-point range.

“Cam is the perfect addition to our basketball program,” UConn Coach Dan Hurley said. “He brings a unique combination of high-level skill and feel for the game, with a fierce competitiveness that has allowed him to enjoy a terrific college basketball career thus far.”

The Huskies lost their top 3-point scoring threat, sophomore Jordan Hawkins, to the NBA draft, along with wing Andre Jackson Jr. and post Adama Sanogo.

Guard Tristen Newtown gave the Huskies a boost last month when he withdrew his name from the draft pool and returned to Storrs.

The Huskies began summer workouts this week, welcoming a top recruiting class led by 6-6 point guard Stephon Castle, a McDonald’s All-American from Georgia. The class also includes 6-7 wing Jayden Ross and 6-4 guard Solomon Ball from Virginia, 6-7 wing Jaylin Stewart from Seattle, Washington, and 7-foot center Youssouf Singare from New York.

“I think that some of my strengths will stand out in UConn’s style of play,” Spencer said. “They have a lot of great movement and they play so well together, with great chemistry. I think that I can come in and hopefully contribute to that.”

NCAA tweaks rules on block/charge calls in men’s basketball

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INDIANAPOLIS — The NCAA is tweaking how block/charge calls are made in men’s basketball.

The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved rule changes on Thursday that require a defender to be in position to draw a charge at the time the offensive player plants a foot to go airborne for a shot. If the defender arrives after the player has planted a foot, officials have been instructed to call a block when there’s contact.

Defenders had to be in position to draw a charge before the offensive player went airborne under previous rules.

NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Committee members made the proposal after NCAA members complained that too many charges were being called on those types of plays.

The panel also approved reviews of basket interference calls during the next media timeout – if the official called it on the floor – a shot clock reset to 20 seconds on an offensive rebound that hits the rim, and players being allowed to wear any number between 0 and 99.

A timeout also will be granted to an airborne player with possession of the ball, and non-student bench personnel will be allowed to serve as peacekeepers on the floor if an altercation occurs.

Charlotte head coach Ron Sanchez resigns after winning CBI title

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ron Sanchez resigned as head coach of the Charlotte 49ers.

Sanchez took over the 49ers on March 19, 2018, inheriting a team coming off a 6-23 campaign. In five years Charlotte went 72-78 under Sanchez, highlighted by winning the College Basketball Invitational championship this past season, the Niners’ first post-season tournament title in school history.

The 22 wins this past season are the most for Charlotte since 2001.

“Ron took over a proud but struggling program and carefully rebuilt it into a 22-game winner. He has led with class, dignity and devotion to our young men,” Charlotte director of athletics Mike Hill said. “His decision to step down from Charlotte was a difficult one for him and everyone associated with our program. We wish him and his family every happiness.”

Hill said the team has already begun a national search for a replacement.

“This is a bittersweet day for me and my family as I step down to pursue other opportunities,” said Sanchez, who came the 49ers after working as an assistant coach at Virginia under Tony Bennett. “It has been a tremendous privilege to lead the 49ers basketball program over the past five years and I want to thank Niner Nation for its support. I will be forever grateful to my staff, players and the university.”

Marquette extends Shaka Smart’s contract through 2029-30 season

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MILWAUKEE — Marquette coach Shaka Smart has received a contract extension after leading the Golden Eagles to their first outright regular-season championship and tournament title in the Big East.

Smart’s contract now runs through the 2029-30 season. This is the first extension Smart has received since signing a six-year deal when he took over as Marquette’s coach in 2021.

Marquette didn’t release financial terms of Smart’s deal.

“In a very short period of time, Shaka and his staff have done a tremendous job of establishing a winning culture, both on and off the court,” athletic director Bill Scholl said in a statement. “Shaka’s vision for the program is focused on extended, sustainable success. The individuals who interact with the team on a daily basis are able to observe frequent examples of growth and the excitement around the program is contagious.”

Marquette has gone 48-20 in Smart’s two seasons and reached the NCAA Tournament each of those years.

The Golden Eagles went 29-7 and won the Big East’s regular-season and tournament championships last season after the league’s coaches had picked them to finish ninth out of 11 teams. Marquette’s season ended with a 69-60 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.

Purdue’s Edey returning to school at NBA draft deadline; Kentucky’s Tshiebwe stays in

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Purdue’s Zach Edey decided it was the right call to go back to school instead of staying in the NBA draft. His predecessor as national player of the year, Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, is sticking with his pro pursuit.

And Connecticut’s reign as NCAA champion will begin with multiple starters having left for the NBA draft and one returning after flirting with doing the same.

The 7-foot-4 Edey and UConn guard Tristen Newton were among the notable names to announce that they were withdrawing from the draft, the NCAA’s deadline for players who declared as early entrants to pull out and retain their college eligibility.

Edey’s decision came in social media posts from both the center and the Boilermakers program that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament behind Edey, The Associated Press men’s national player of the year.

But Tshiebwe announced late in the afternoon that he would remain in the draft after a college career that included being named the AP national player of the year in 2022.

For the current champions, Newton (10.1 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds) is returning after being one of four Huskies to declare for the draft after a run to UConn’s fifth national championship in early April. He scored a game-high 19 points to go with 10 rebounds in the victory over San Diego State in the title game.

The others were Final Four Most Outstanding Player Adama Sanogo, wing Jordan Hawkins and versatile guard Andre Jackson Jr. Sanogo (17.8 points) and Hawkins (16.3) have made it clear they have closed the door on their college careers, while team spokesman Phil Chardis said that Jackson (6.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists) would remain in the draft.

The Huskies have 247sports’ No. 3-ranked recruiting class for next year to restock the roster, led by McDonald’s All-American point guard Stephon Castle.

The NBA’s withdrawal deadline is June 12, but is moot when it comes to college players returning to school due to the NCAA’s earlier timeline to retain playing eligibility.


TREY ALEXANDER: Creighton gets back a 6-4 guard who averaged 13.6 points and shot 41% from 3-point range in his first full season as a starter.

ADEM BONA: The 6-foot-10 forward and Pac-12 freshman of the year is returning to UCLA after starting 32 games as a rookie and averaging 7.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks – with coach Mick Cronin praising his toughness for “competing through multiple injuries for as long as he could” in a statement Wednesday.

EDEY: He averaged 22.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.5 assists while shooting 60.7% from the field. His presence alone helps Purdue be a factor in the Big Ten race.

JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: The 6-6 guard went through the NBA G League Combine and had workouts with multiple teams before opting to return to Tennessee for a fifth season alongside teammate Santiago Vescovi.

JUDAH MINTZ: The 6-3 freshman averaged 16.3 points and 4.6 assists for Syracuse, ranking third among Division I freshmen in scoring behind only Alabama’s Brandon Miller and Lamar’s Nate Calmese.

OWLS’ RETURNEES: Florida Atlantic got good news after its surprise Final Four run with the return leading scorers Johnell Davis (13.8) and Alijah Martin (13.4). ESPN first reported their decisions, while Martin later posted a social media statement.

TERRENCE SHANNON JR.: Illinois got a big boost with Shannon announcing his night in a social media post. The 6-6 guard is returning for a fifth college season after averaging 17.2 points.

SPARTANS’ RETURNEES: Michigan State announced that guards Jaden Akins and A.J. Hoggard have withdrawn from the NBA draft. Standout guard Tyson Walker had previously withdrawn in April, setting up Tom Izzo to have five of his top scorers back.


KOBE BROWN: Missouri’s 6-8 swingman opted against returning for a fifth college season after being an AP first-team all-Southeastern Conference pick averaging 15.8 points last season.

JAYLEN CLARK: The third-year UCLA guard averaged 13.0 points and 6.0 rebounds while leading the Pac-12 with 2.6 steals en route to being named Naismith national defensive player of the year. Cronin called him a winner with strong intangibles who made UCLA “a better program because he chose to be a Bruin.”

BRICE SENSABAUGH: The Ohio State freshman averaged 16.3 points and 5.4 rebounds in 31 games before missing his final two in the Big Ten Tournament due to a knee injury. He’s a potential first-round prospect.

TSHIEBWE: The 6-9, 260-pound forward is a tough interior presence who led the country in rebounds for two straight seasons (15.1 in 2022, 13.7 in 2023) while racking up 48 double-doubles. But he faces an uncertain next stop and is projected at best as a second-round prospect.