Gonzaga's defensive renaissance has it on cusp of Final Four

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- For stretches of its 72-58 win over Florida State in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, Gonzaga struggled to score. The top offense in America had been contained, as Leonard Hamilton's squad turned a double-digit halftime deficit into a four-point, winnable game late.

But FSU scored just two points in the final 4:11 against a Bulldogs squad that avenged last season's loss to the ACC contender at this same stage of the NCAA tournament. And it offered proof that this energized scoring outfit can stop elite teams, too.

If the latter continues, Gonzaga could advance to Minneapolis and leave with coach Mark Few's first championship -- with defense.

"You know, they had a lot of offensive talent," said Zach Norvell Jr., who finished 4-for-8 from the 3-point line against FSU. "Trying to switch things up on them, contest every shot. ... Early, they were physical. We wanted to be more physical than them, take the fight to them both on offensive and defensive ends, trying to switch up schemes and don't let them get too comfortable."

Two years ago, Gonzaga reached the national championship game with the best defense in America.

This year's group has made its mark with a per-possession offensive spark that's unrivaled in college basketball. But the Bulldogs have been a spectacular defensive squad in the NCAA tournament, allowing just 85 points per 100 possessions in wins over Fairleigh Dickinson, Baylor (the Big 12's best offense) and Florida State.

Texas Tech, America's best defense this season, had held its opponents to 87 points per 100 possessions entering Thursday's matchup against Michigan in the Sweet 16.

"You know, whoever we play, it's going to be just a phenomenal defensive team," Few said. "And probably just as hard or harder to score than it was tonight. So we're going to have to really buckle down and be tough. As far as comparing the two teams [this year's and the 2016-17 squad], we were huge that year with [Przemek] Karnowski and [Zach] Collins and Johnathan Williams, and even Nigel [Williams-Goss] was a big guard. So that was the No. 1 defensive team in the country, and I think we were actually ranked 15th offensively. And how about this year -- we're the No. 1 offense in the country and I think our defense is ranked 15th, so there's your difference right there."

As it prepares for the Elite Eight, however, Gonzaga is proving it can stall great teams and perhaps employ a balance the national runner-up squad in 2017 might have lacked.

Florida State's length and athleticism frustrated Gonzaga in stretches, but Killian Tillie, Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura wouldn't surrender easy shots, extending their commitment to defense around the rim in the postseason. Josh Perkins has six steals in the team's past three games, too.

How has this defensive renaissance impacted Gonzaga's opponents?

Mfiondu Kabengele and Terance Mann combined to average 44 points in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. They finished a combined 5-for-19 (13 points) against Gonzaga on Thursday.

Plus, Clarke might be the best defensive player in America.

Through three NCAA tournament games, he has 13 blocks and four steals.

"He's been unbelievable on the defensive end, which we knew he was going to be," Few said. "But he's worked diligently and just put in tons and tons of hours, and he's been so coachable. Man, has he been coachable and so willing to learn. Those are great combinations, when somebody is working hard and they're coachable, and then he's around a great accepting group of guys who want to give him the ball and want to find him the ball, and a point guard who can make those reads that has helped him, also."

For the second time in three years, Few appears to have it all.

And if his current squad continues to lock up opponents the way it has thus far in the NCAA tournament, he might win it all.