Defining Stretch Set To Begin: Zags Host Notre Dame

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 22: Eric Atkins #0 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish shoots while Nemanja Djurisic #42 of the Georgia Bulldogs tries to block during the Progressive CBE Classic consolation game on November 22, 2011 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Between November 30 and December 31, Gonzaga fans will learn a whole lot about where this team ranks among some of the top squads in the country. While it isn't a murderers row of a schedule, the next 10 games will pit the Zags against a mix of teams that should test this team in a multitude of different ways. There are a guard heavy teams like Xavier and Arizona, as well as physical matchups like Michigan St. and Butler.

The opening game of this stretch is against Notre Dame, which lost its best player in Tim Abromaitis to an ACL injury in practice. With the Fighting Irish already a young and inexperienced group, losing their most productive returner will almost certainly be the death blow to any NCAA Tournament hopes they may have harbored. There is still a good young core on this team, led by sophomore guard Eric Atkins, who is averaging 15.4 ppg, but this game will not be as stern of a test as previously thought.

While Notre Dame was one of the more impressive offensive teams in the country last season, this year it has struggled to make baskets against tougher opponents. In its three games against teams that will challenge for postseason berths (Detroit, Georgia and Missouri), Notre Dame has averaged only 58 points, and has lost two of the three games. However, in its other four wins, the Fighting Irish have scored at least 74 points. If Gonzaga can use its size and depth to harass and defend Notre Dame for the full 40 minutes, it should be a struggle for the Fighting Irish to score.

On the offensive end, the Zags have a clear frontcourt advantage. Notre Dame really doesn't have anyone that is capable of slowing down Rob Sacre and Elias Harris. It wouldn't surprise me to see the Fighting Irish go small and try and harass the bigs with double-teams. If this is the case, the Gonzaga guards should have plenty of open looks from the perimeter, and guys like Kevin Pangos, Marquise Carter and Gary Bell will need to take advantage of the opportunities.

Knocking off a Big East opponent would be a great way for Gonzaga to begin this stretch of games. If the Zags can continue to play defense with the level of intensity we saw against Western Michigan and Hawaii, they have a great chance of earning a comfortable victory. With that said, if the Fighting Irish go small and can generate some confidence shooting from the perimeter, this just feels like a team that might linger around for 40 minutes. When it comes down to it, I expect to learn a lot about this Gonzaga team based on how they react to a wounded opponent. If this team has a little bit of the killer instinct it needs to develop, and I get the sense that it just might, then I expect to see a 77-58 win.

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