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Originally published March 22, 2013 at 8:21 PM | Page modified March 25, 2013 at 11:19 AM

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The Zags' underappreciated strength? Defense (no lie)

Offense is usually king at Gonzaga, but this year's squad has developed a tough defense.

Times staff columnist

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SALT LAKE CITY — The list of defining traits for the Gonzaga men's basketball program is clear and distinguished: consistent winning, giant-killing victories, daunting home-court advantage at The Kennel, sweet-shooting guards, versatile big men, floppy-haired athletes and John Stockton's short shorts.

Now, for this team, add another.

Defense.

Defense?!?!?!

Yes, defense.

It used to seem that Gonzaga thought of defense as merely a break between offensive possessions. Not anymore. Not this team. These players are Bulldogs, for real. Saturday's NCAA tournament opponent, Wichita State, will receive praise for its toughness and the pride it takes in shutting down teams. But let it be known that the Zags wouldn't be the No. 1 seed if they didn't possess similar attributes.

In fact, Gonzaga actually ranks ahead of Wichita State in defensive efficiency (points per possession). The Zags are No. 19 of 347 Division I schools in that area. The Shockers are 35th. The Zags allow a lower field-goal percentage (.382 to .398) and fewer points per game (59.4 to 60.5) despite playing a faster pace. Both teams are among the nation's top 11 in rebounding margin, with Wichita State holding a slight advantage there.

So if you think this West Region third-round matchup is all about Gonzaga's ability to take an elbow, ask more of your brain. The team that earns a Sweet 16 bid here must do more than punk the other. And because Gonzaga has regularly matched the grit of its foes — even the big-conference ones early in the season — it allows the Zags' advantage in skill to become more pronounced.

As they've accumulated this 32-2 record, the Zags have shown they can win in so many ways. They can beat you in a steel-cage match or three-point shootout, in quicksand or in a track meet, at your pace or at theirs.

"People have always thought of Gonzaga as just being an offensive team," assistant coach Ray Giacoletti said. "But this team has bought into defense more than any other team."

Head coach Mark Few said this is the best defensive team he has had in 14 seasons at Gonzaga.

"And it's shown," he added.

The program has gradually improved on defense over the past five years, but this is Gonzaga's breakout year. The Zags have deviated from the program's previous soft identity with attention to detail, chemistry, better defensive personnel and desire.

They don't have a roster full of fantastic individual defenders, but they have two elite ones in Gary Bell Jr. and Mike Hart, the West Coast Conference defensive player of the year. And they have a commitment from the entire lineup to heed the scouting report and work as a unit.

Much like on offense, versatility helps the defense, too. Center Kelly Olynyk and power forward Elias Harris are agile big men. Hart and Bell can each guard at least three positions. Point guard Kevin Pangos is much improved. There also isn't a great drop-off when Few makes substitutions.

"When we succeed, we succeed with our defense," Hart said. "That needs to be our calling card. If we go far in this tournament, it will be because of our defense."

Even their subpar defensive performances aren't awful. On Thursday, Gonzaga played poorly in the first half against Southern, allowing the Jaguars to hit open three-pointers and make 11 of 23 field goals. Then, in the second half, the Zags held Southern to 30.4-percent shooting.

The players' ability to absorb complicated concepts and adjust within games has been a huge asset for the coaching staff. Giacoletti raves about how this team can execute game plans with a short turnaround, which is a key in the Big Dance.

"There have been times when we've had to do a one-day prep, and I've left for the night thinking, 'I don't know if a normal team could pick it up this quickly,' " Giacoletti said. "But they're basketball players with high IQs."

They haven't changed the reputation of Gonzaga as an offense-only juggernaut. It'll take years to do that. But if any foe is expecting all-star game intensity from the Zags, they'll be surprised at how tough they've become.

These Zags stay true to the program's defensive principles. They're mostly a half-court man-to-man defense with one defender pressuring the ballhandler and four guys in the gaps. They focus on discouraging passes into the post and tweak their defensive rotations depending on the opponent.

"What has changed is the players," Harris said. "We're more versatile than in the past. We can do multiple things. We want to be a truly balanced team."

They want to win when it matters. At last, they understand that requires playing defense.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

Twitter: @JerryBrewer

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