While Gonzaga fans and the national media have lauded this terrific series between two BCS schools that play in mid-major conferences, it's important to remember that Gonzaga is 0-4 against Memphis. No matter where the game has been played, whether it has been Spokane or Memphis, the Tigers have used their athleticism and length to pull out all four meetings. I'm sure many fans are pointing to the fact that John Calipari is gone and that Memphis no longer has a Derrick Rose or Tyreke Evans on the roster as the reason that this is the year the Zags will break the streak.
However, it's important to remember that guys like Elliot Williams, Wesley Witherspoon, and Roburt Sallie are elite guys, who are good enough to play anywhere in the country. In my opinion, the reason that the Zags will end this losing streak against the Tigers, and also perfectly position themselves for the 4 seed in Spokane, is because of a new wrinkle that the coaching staff put on display in the win over Portland. For years I have advocated the tightening of the rotation, and I tend to live by the belief that you find your eight best guys and form the rotation and substitution pattern around them. Yet in the dominant performance against Portland, Gonzaga had nine guys play 10+ minutes, and Will Foster played nine minutes. Much to my surprise, this expanded rotation coincided with the best performance this team has had since Maui.
The more I thought about the expanded rotation and the guys who were part of it, the more I thought it was a truly brilliant move. While lots of teams have nice depth, I think there are very few that bring guys off the bench with skill sets so radically different then the guys in front of them. For example, lets consider Kelly Olynyk as the back up for Elias Harris. Harris is a powerful scorer who can be one of the most dominant guys in the country on any given night. So while a coach is game-planning to slow down Elias, they must now also figure out how to slow down the 7'0 Olynyk who is comfortable on the perimeter and has the passing skills of a point guard.
Lets also take a look at Grant Gibbs and Meech Goodson. In Goodson, you have a lightning quick point guard, who normally will not look to score and loves to push the tempo. He is also a tenacious defender who loves to get to the rim. Now the Zags bring a guy off the bench who is 6'5 and more comfortable scoring from the perimeter, but can also use his size in the post. It's truly a match up and game-planning nightmare for opposing coaches.The key to beating Memphis will be to find the right match up for Elliot Williams. I expect to see the Zags play a lot of 2-3 zone because the Tigers typically don't shoot great from the perimeter. However, the defense will still have to key on the super-athletic Williams. The transfer from Duke is averaging 20.0 points per game and shoots nearly 50% from the field. Williams is also pretty consistent, as he has scored in double-figures in all but one game this season. So while it's fair to assume that Williams will get his points, it's vital that the Gonzaga defense makes him earn his baskets and take lots of shots to get those points.
Wesley Witherspoon is a guy that I just absolutely fell in love with during 2008 recruiting. The kid is a 6'8 guard/forward, that actually has the skill set to play point guard. Due to his lack of strength, his adjustment to the D1 level hasn't been that smooth, but it's starting to look like everything is clicking. In their impressive 85-75 win over UAB, Witherspoon scored 29 points on 8-12 shooting. Witherspoon is one of those kids that is nearly impossible to match up with.
I think the best bet if the Zags are to play man-to-man is to use a combo of Arop and Harris on him. Elias might be physical enough to knock him out of his comfort zone, although I worry whether he has the lateral quickness to stay with Witherspoon on the dribble. With his length and tenacious defense, I think Arop might be the perfect match up. Arop is the kind of guy that Gonzaga has never really had in the program, and he will be vital in match ups like this over the next four years.
I think this is going to be a helluva basketball game tomorrow afternoon. Gonzaga has the travel and early start time to deal with, but as we saw against Illinois, this team has the ability to recover from that. Memphis is playing pretty good basketball lately, but this isn't the usual Tigers team that we have seen the last four years. If Gonzaga can execute their offensive sets and not the length of Memphis bother them, then I really think the Zags will bring this game home. I feel like we are going to see a surprise performance from either Grant Gibbs or Bol Kong, which will help lead the Zags to the thrilling 73-68 victory.