While Gonzaga has played a number of strong nonconference opponents this season, tonight's game against Butler is different. Not only is it a showcase of two of the top non-power conference programs in the country but it occurs on the biggest of stages in the historic Hinkle Fieldhouse. Both teams enter the game playing at an extremely high level, and while Butler is walking wounded without star guard Rotnei Clarke, they will still be a huge challenge for the Zags.
While many have called Gonzaga the model non-BCS program, you can't question what Brad Stevens has done at the helm of Butler. The very analytical Stevens is a remarkable head coach and easily one of the best in the country. He consistently gets his teams to play above and beyond expectation and this year's Butler team is no different. Butler is an incredibly methodical team and will give Gonzaga fits with their defensive play. In their last game against Richmond, Brad Stevens' team learned how to win without Rotnei Clarke and dominated the Spiders. They only allowed 47 points on 32% shooting from the field. Andrew Smith, Kellen Dunham, and the rest of the Bulldogs appear ready to adopt the 'next man up' strategy and do whatever it takes to mitigate the loss of Clarke.
At 6'11'', 250 lbs, Andrew Smith will be one of the few opposing big men that won't be intimidated by the Gonzaga frontcourt. You could make an argument that the Zags' big men are the best collective unit in the country, led by center Kelly Olynyk. The Canadian big man got off to a very slow start against Portland and got into early foul trouble but went on to score 21 points in Gonzaga's blowout win over the Pilots. It will be an interesting test for Olynyk tonight as Smith will be more than ready for the challenge. The Zags can't afford to have Kelly saddled with early foul trouble in this game. He has a propensity for committing horrible fouls on the perimeter and he needs to minimize the mistakes that cause fouls. If he can get off to a hot start and get Smith out on the perimeter and drive on him, then I think he can have a coming out party on a national stage.
If you looked at this game simply on paper, I think you would have a hard time not thinking this would be a somewhat comfortable Gonzaga win. Butler is minus their top performer (Rotnei accounts for about 1/4 of their offensive production) and the Zags are top to bottom the more talented team. That said, there is no one on Earth except for the most Gonzaga slanted fans, that think this will be a comfortable win. The Zags will need to scrap and claw to leave Hinkle Fieldhouse with a win and they can't afford a B game from anyone. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell need to hit and take open jumpers, Kelly Olynyk needs to stay on the court and be aggressive, and Elias Harris needs to make his impact felt every moment he is on the floor. If that happens, and I think it will, then Gonzaga gets the win. If not, it could be a very frustrating evening...