It'll also be a nice test for the Zags as they begin arguably the toughest part of their non-conference slate. After New Mexico, the Bulldogs have two true road games at West Virginia and at Kansas State. After the disappointing loss to Dayton, Gonzaga came back with a solid win over Arkansas in their final game of the Maui Invitational. Unlike in previous years where Mark Few has scheduled a murderous non-conference slate, Gonzaga had a semi-easy road.
In such, there aren't as many opportunities for the team to "prove" themselves to the national media. I'm of the mindset we don't need to do much proving, that people across the nation are already paying attention. That is just me, and there are plenty of contrary opinions and reasons to go against that. One thing we can all agree on, the Zags still need to make a slight statement this year and a victory over New Mexico State is a solid start.
Tip-off is at 8 p.m. PT and can be viewed on ESPNU.
Meet the opponent
New Mexico State Aggies (7-3), Kenpom #75, RPI #115
This game actually had a little bit more allure a week ago. A week ago, the Aggies were 7-1, albeit 7-1 against largely inferior opponents. Still, excluding a four point win against the Northern Colorado Bears, the Aggies had won their games by an average of 16 points. Then, the real competition came into town. The Aggies lost to Colorado State by two points and then lost to their in-state rivals the New Mexico Lobos by nine. It doesn't get any easier for the Aggies with a road game against Gonzaga followed by another road game against the Arizona Wildcats. Ouch.
The Aggies have a pretty solid inside-outside game going, but the offense mainly flows through the backcourt. Junior guard Daniel Mullings leads the team with 17.7 points per game and junior guard DK Eldridge chips in 12.1. After that, it is a little bit of everything. The Aggies run with a deep bench, with nine players averaging at least 10 minutes a game and only Mullings and Eldridge seeing the floor for more than a half.
One other very important note is the sheer height advantage the Aggies have over most teams in the nation. Sim Bhullar is an absolute monstrosity, standing 7'5 tall. After that, forwards Renaldo Dixon and Tshilidzi Nephawe both stand 6'10. Unlike most teams with that much height, the Aggies use it - a lot. Each player averages at least 20 minutes (except for Dixon, but at 19.8 we'll give him the benefit of the doubt).
What to watch for
There are a whole load of red flags for the Zags on this one, because on paper the Aggies are a matchup nightmare. The obvious one is the height discrepency, and for the Aggies, that translates to a lot of benefits. They pound it down low - a lot. They are first in the nation in free-throws made and second in free-throws attempted. With this comes foul trouble for the other team. Opponents have been whistled 240 times against the Aggies, second most in the nation. As to be expected with so much height, they are one of the better rebounding teams in the nation as well, sitting 17th overall in offensive boards, and eighth in total rebounds.
In case you are just tuning in this season, the Zags are a bit short. Not so much short, but short on the limited height they do have. The Aggies know this and will pound the Gonzaga big men down low. Quick and early foul trouble for either Przemek Karnowski or Sam Dower will provide some horrid mismatches in the paint. Mark Few might be putting in Ryan Edwards and Luke Meikle more than he actually wants to. I have faith, sometimes, that Drew Barham has the hustle to try and stave off someone he sacrifices a few inches to, but not someone he sacrifices a foot to.
The Aggies don't take a lot of three point shots, except for one player. Elridge is a threat behind the arc, hitting 51 percent of his threes. He doesn't take too many a game (averages just a shade over three attempts), but it is important that Gonzaga keep a close watch on him. They can't afford to have the Aggies raining threes while trying to hold the wrecking crew off down low.
Still, it isn't all doom and gloom for the Zags. If the Aggies are going to push the ball outside, at least we can cope with that. We are basically the best shooting team in the nation, and if the threes are coming in we should be able to hold our own. I'm not going to make any predictions on whether that will happen or not, but make no mistake, Gonzaga is facing a likely tournament team on Saturday. If we get the win, it will be a quality win. If we take a loss, it will be a hard fought one.
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