Seton Hall is putting on its dancing shoes for the first time since 2006. The Pirates will be mamboing with a team that is all too familiar with the dance floor, as Mark Few and the Gonzaga Bulldogs are on the flip side of this 6/11 matchup. To get ready for one of the more anticipated matchups of the first round, we had a chat with our brothers in arms over at Slipper Still Fits to discuss Thursday's showdown.
BECB: Gonzaga was a top 10 team entering the season. Why did they fall out of the upper echelon and do you think there is still that top 10 team lurking in there?
Peter Woodburn (Slipper Still Fits): Gonzaga started off the season ranked No. 9 in the AP preseason poll because the entire nation was enamored with the idea of Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis, and Kyle Wiltjer all playing on the floor at the exact same time. No worries that no one had any idea how all three would work on the floor at the same time, but it was enough to hype up all of the potential issues the Zags had as a team.
There were to big things that happened to Gonzaga. First, they lost the backcourt of seniors Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., which helped bring the team to the Elite Eight last season. They replaced that with Josh Perkins (redshirt freshman) and Silas Melson (sophomore) and hoped that the senior frontcourt would offset that difference. It flat out didn’t. Both Perkins and Melson needed more time to get to gel into starters than anyone thought, and the Zags lost game after game because of an inconsistent backcourt.
Second, and probably the most important factor, was the senior center Karnowski going down with a season-ending back injury. Karnowski wasn’t the flashiest of centers, but he was one of the best defensive big men in the country. No matter which way you cut it, if you are a team and you lose your starting senior center for the year, you will be in trouble.
Finally, this team has a very short bench. The Zags have three transfers wearing redshirts this season, so when anything has ever gone wrong in games, they haven’t had the personnel to be able to rectify any situation. This was especially exasperated after Karnowski went down with his injury.
The Zags have been playing much better as of late. Top 10 better? Probably not. But this is a top 25-15 team when they are clicking on all cylinders, and that is exactly how they played to win the WCC Tournament and ensure a spot in the big dance.
The Zags played a pretty difficult non-conference schedule this year, playing the likes of Texas A&M, UConn and Arizona. Even though those games were back in November/December, what do you think playing in those games did for the team, aside from bulk up the resume?
In a way, it is almost good that they lost those games. Although it was incredibly frustrating to watch as it happened, as the non-conference losses piled up, it revealed that this team wasn’t what we all hoped it was. They also weren’t that far off of what we all hoped they were either. Their first five losses were by a combined 15 points!
Gonzaga always plays a brutal non-conference schedule, as is the requirement to try and boost any sort of seeding for the committee since they play the dredges of the WCC twice a year. So they helped bulk up the resume (barely, since they only beat UConn), but most importantly it helped this team find its identity. They were never a top 10 team, and the reality check was a bit necessary.
What are some of the keys to Gonzaga’s impressive offensive, which ranks 28th in scoring (78.7 PPG) and 14th in field goal percentage (48.7)?
Gonzaga has always been a smart shooting team that is always looking for the extra pass when the backcourt has the ball. Combine that with Wiltjer, who is an absolute nightmare to defend because of his length, and with Sabonis, who is relentless around the hoop, and Gonzaga has a tidy and nice offense.
Much of the scoring comes from the frontcourt. Everyone knows Wiltjer for his ability to hit the three, but often times people forget that he is also a crafty and patient post player. Wiltjer will post up and weasel his to the hoop for a high percentage shot. The fact that he can hit threes, and tends to have a slight height advantage on the poor soul trying to guard him beyond the arc, and he is one of the best shooters on the team.
The other anchor is Sabonis. If Domas goes to his left hand, it is game over. He also can step out to hit the occasional jump shot. But it is at the rim that he does the most damage. Sabonis hits 72.5 percent of his shots at the rim, and he plays with a ferocity down low that is matched by few in the nation.
Size is obviously a major advantage for Gonzaga with the likes of Wiltjer and Sabonis prowling the floor. What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of each guy and how can Seton Hall use that information to its advantage?
I alluded to both of them above as far as strengths go. Good luck guarding Wiltjer, for any team. Sabonis is a more prototypical player, but the fact of the matter is he is better than most other centers/forwards, and that is why there is talk of him going in the first round of the NBA Draft.
Both have their weaknesses, however. Wiltjer is quite slow on the defensive end (that is being generous). He also doesn’t have the greatest defensive awareness, and certain teams made it a mission to exploit that. The Saint Mary’s Gaels beat the Zags twice by essentially utilizing the high screen and either isolating Wiltjer in a defensive mismatch or by getting an open shot from the screen.
Sabonis’ one (and only one!) weakness ties to his strength--the energy he plays with on the court. Sabonis has a tendency to commit dumb fouls, or fouls he isn’t even aware are fouls. As such, it is a recurring thing for Sabonis to head to the bench with two fouls and plenty of time left in the first half. Seton Hall will be in huge trouble, however, is Sabonis can keep it together, which he did in both close wins over BYU and Saint Mary’s.
Speaking of Seton Hall’s advantage, it has a great group of backcourt guys. Since Gonzaga is more frontcourt focused, at least in terms of star power, how do you think the guards will stack up against Seton Hall’s?
The Gonzaga guards are still good, just not as good as Seton Hall’s. Eric McClellan is one of the quickest players on the court and has turned into a consistent scoring option for the Zags. Perkins, after all of his troubles throughout the year, started to emerge in conference play and led the WCC in three-point percentage. Kyle Dranginis is one of those all-around glue guys who does a bit of everything without doing any of it in a flashy manner.
The one way the Gonzaga guards will stack up against Seton Hall is on the defensive end. McClellan was the WCC Defensive POY. The Gonzaga guards all have good size and all play hard-nosed defense. As a team, the Bulldogs are ranked No. 9 against the three-point shot, according to Ken Pomeroy, and much of this comes from the fact that these guards are absolutely relentless on the defensive end. Defense is what has kept the Zags in a lot of games this year, and generally speaking, it has been the guards carrying that torch.
This is Gonzaga’s 18th-straight NCAA Tournament. It’s been in every year under Mark Few. Do you think the Cinderella mid-major tag has been entirely wiped away at this point or do you still think there is work to be done to be considered in the upper echelon of basketball programs?
After you go to the NCAA Tournament 18-straight times, you can’t be considered a mid major anymore. This team flies on private chartered jets to games. They had a HBO series running on them this summer. There is nothing mid major about the Zags…outside of the fact that the school still only has barely 7,000 kids that attend it.
Gonzaga isn’t a big school, but they aren’t a mid major either. They are nearing the upper echelon of basketball, in the sense that they are perennial top 25 teams and virtually guaranteed to make the NCAA Tournament (and to all the haters that say blah blah blah because they play in the WCC then please point out why no other small conference teams have come anywhere close to putting together the streak the Zags have), but the team still hasn’t been to a Final Four. Until they make it into that select company, there is plenty for Gonzaga to prove year in and year out.
Lastly, who wins and why? (Hint: The correct answer is Seton Hall).
As a Gonzaga writer, I can only say in my completely unbiased opinion that the Zags will win. There are some legit reasons for this too! 1) the game in Denver should be more of a Gonzaga friendly crowd, although it might not matter much in the grand scheme of things. 2) Seton Hall is ranked No. 26 by KenPom, and the Zags are ranked No. 28. Gonzaga is deserving of its No. 11 seed based on the entirety of the season, but this team has been playing much better than a No. 11 seed to close out the season--Seton Hall got a rough draw on this one. 3) As an extension of point number two, this team still has Wiltjer and Sabonis on it, who were both Wooden Award Candidates and are both making NBA draft noise. Overall, this is a team, which if it is playing to its potential, is much better than a No. 11 seed.
Editor's Note: They must not teach people how to read in Spokane. It says right up there in the question that Seton Hall was the correct answer.