How to play Gonzaga

Gonzaga center Kelly Olynyk is the West Coast Conference Player of the Year, one of 15 finalists for the Wooden Award, one of 14 finalists for the Oscar Robertson Trophy and one of 30 candidates for the Naismith Trophy. (Associated Press photo)

The best way to defend Gonzaga Kelly Olynyk is “try to get Dwight Howard eligible.”

Hot dog. I not only found a West Coast Conference assistant coach willing to talk (anonymously) about Gonzaga, I found one with a sense of humor. Here is his scouting report on the top-seeded and top-ranked Zags:

The biggest issue the Zags present is their size, with Olynyk (7-0, 238 pounds), Elias Harris (6-8, 239), Mike Hart (6-6, 206) and reserve Sam Dower (6-9, 255). WSU stood up well to Pittsburgh’s size and Gonzaga will be more challenging because its big men are skilled.

“They have NBA size,” our assistant coach said. “They’re as physical a team as we’ve played in a long time, both with size and strength and style of play.”

The WCC assistant watched WSU’s win over Pitt and said the Shockers will need that same approach against the Zags. WSU out-rebounded Pitt 37-32 and outscored the Panthers 28-24 in the paint.

“I was impressed with what they were able to do on the interior,” he said. “They definitely took the fight to them. I liked their game plan of taking it at them and trying to be physical with the Pittsburgh posts.”

Olynyk is the key figure in the game. WSU needs to limit his shots and make him work on defense.  He stood 6-foot-3 as a sophomore in high school and didn’t lose his perimeter skills after the growth spurt. If WSU can drag him away from the basket with screens on offense, it will help the Shockers score and make Olynyk work. He is at his best defensively when he can stay in the lane and help teammates. Offensively, his versatility is a problem. He can make mid-range shots and drive past defenders after a pump fake.

“He really understands angles,” the assistant coach said. “He does a really nice job on the screen and roll game, making contact on the screen and creating a switch and a scramble and then he rolls hard to the rim. You need to put a body on him and keep him off the offensive glass.”

Even with Olynyk’s big numbers (17.6 points), Gonzaga is a little different this season with its balanced scoring. The Zags don’t rely so heavily on one big scorer like an Adam Morrison or a Dan Dickau of the past.

 “Great chemistry,” he said. “They’ve got five legitimate guys who can go off and get 20 points. They’re more of a team than any of the Gonzaga teams we’ve seen recently. Their ball movement and spacing is really good. They share the ball. They play for each other. “

Hart is one of the most interesting players in the tournament. A former walk-on, Hart plays 16.6 minutes and averages 1.9 points. His best stat: 8 turnovers in 566 minutes this season.

“He does all the things coaches notice and sometimes fans don’t,” the assistant coach said. “Crash the boards. Runs through six people to get a loose ball. Screener. Understands spacing very well. Great understanding of the offense and making the extra pass.”

Watch a Gonzaga game and it seems like guard Kevin Pangos is always making nervy three-pointers in the final minutes, just like in Thursday’s win over Southern.

“He’s definitely a big-game, big-shot, big-moment kind of player,” the coach said. “He does a phenomenal job playing with great poise and great confidence.”

Pangos shares the backcourt with other good shooters – Gary Bell Jr (39.4 percent from three) and Drew Barham (44.2). They are helped when teams try to double Olynyk. Both he and Harris are savvy passers who can find open teammates. The Shocker guards will likely try to take away the threes and make Pangos and Bell into drivers. Sometimes giving up a two is better than giving up a three. If a defense allows Gonzaga to pass without obstacles and reverse the ball, the Zags will feast on open shots.

“Wichita State’s guards have the  ability to crawl up into the guys they guard a little and put pressure on them,” he said. “You have to make the guards have to make plays off the dribble. Don’t let (Pangos) get comfortable shooting threes. Jam him up and try to challenge him to make plays off the dribble.”

 WSU’s guards may stress Gonzaga’s defense with their driving. Screens set high and wide can spread out the defense and open the lane for easy shots. The Shockers may also take advantage of Gonzaga’s desire to offensive rebound by breaking, if they can capture the rebound. Gonzaga will mainly play man to man, although it does go to zone defense when needed. The Zags won’t pressure too much on defense. They play solid and smart and let their height work for them. Turnovers are an opportunity for the Zags to run and they are excellent in the open court.

“You gotta make shots,” the assistant coach said. “They want you to take and make contested shots. They’re kind of counting on you taking a tough shot and only getting one.”