When Gonzaga reveled its non-conference schedule before the start of the season, many fans quickly pointed to games against Arizona and Michigan St. as the marquee encounters on the schedule. However, the game that immediately jumped out to this writer was the trip to Cincinnati to face Xavier. Not only are these two of the non-BCS schools that are regarded as elite programs, but the contrast of styles between the two programs is what makes college basketball so great.
While this game lost a little bit of luster after Xavier dropped three games due to the suspensions of guys like Mark Lyons and Tu Holloway following the fight with Cincinnati, it's important to note that prior to the fight, Xavier was being considered a Final Four contender. I would take the combo of Lyons and Holloway over any backcourt in the country, because they exude a toughness and confidence that is key in tight games (note: please no gangster jokes in the comment section. I personally never saw any value in people making drug jokes after the suspension of Heytvelt and Davis. People make mistakes...let's move on).
After praising the Xavier backcourt, it's important to note how impotent the frontline has been. Kenny Frease, who has the potential to be an excellent threat in the paint for Xavier, has failed to make much of an impact this season, averaging only 9.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg. Junior forward Travis Taylor pulls down 6.3 rpg, but he isn't much of a scoring threat in the paint. Not allowing the Musketeers frontcourt to get going could be the key for Gonzaga tonight, as slowing down the backcourt will be a big enough challenge.
While every Gonzaga fan has to be happy with the play of the team since the loss to Michigan St., this game will provide the Zags with their biggest challenge to date. A win at Xavier would be a great feather in the cap come Selection Sunday and also would give this team a huge shot of confidence heading into the full grind of WCC play. With that said, Xavier will be looking to make a point that it is still an elite team this year and I expect to see the Musketeers play at a high level. Although I like the way this Gonzaga team is developing, I'm not sure it's ready to win a game like this on the road. While I think it will be close, I expect Gonzaga to struggle down the stretch in the 77-71 loss.