When Mark Few landed Austin Daye in their 2007 recruiting class, the landscape of Gonzaga recruitment changed. There is no doubt that the foundation for this switchover were laid when the Zags got Matt Bouldin to sign on despite being recruited by NC State and Notre Dame among others, but Daye's arrival to Spokane was Mark Few's first legitimate "blue-chip" recruit. Two years later, Daye has become a solid contributor for the Bulldogs (13 points, 7 rebounds a game) but questions still remain about what we should expect from Austin day in, day out. With North Carolina on the horizon, it seems clear that the time for Daye to step up has arrived; he might not get another chance like this again.
Before I begin, this whole post was inspired by this piece I read earlier today from The Big Lead. While the language in the article is a bit offsetting for Gonzaga fans, the basis of the argument appears to be valid. For Gonzaga to prevail against North Carolina, Austin Daye is the key. Browsing the roster of North Carolina, it is clear that they are loaded with athletes and players that are going to push Gonzaga to the brink for 40 minutes. With his frame and skill set, Austin can hang with the Tarheels, but for Gonzaga win on Friday night Daye is going to have to shine in a way that we have not seen much of up to this point in his college career.
While there is no doubt that Friday's game is loaded with prime time matchups, everyone that scouts Gonzaga knows that they are slim in the frontcourt and loaded in the backcourt. With the injury to Robert Sacre and the up and down nature of Will Foster's game, players like Daye and Josh Heytvelt are forced into more minutes and less opportunities to play their style of basketball which is typically centered around athleticism and making plays. For Daye, the transformation has been difficult and it has often lead to a number of games where he has picked up quick fouls and is relegated to the bench for an extended period of time. With North Carolina, the #1 key is for Daye to play smart because he must stay on the floor for the Zags to have any chance. Carolina runs very deep in the interior with post players like Tyler Hansbrough, Ed Davis, and Deon Thompson. While Heytvelt will match with Hansbrough, Thompson and Davis will both be struggles for Daye because they are very skilled and, especially Davis, athletic. They'll be able to take him into the post but have enough outside game to draw fouls and send him to the pine early. If this should happen, Gonzaga will have to play the undersized Ira Brown in a spot that will likely not turn out well for the Zags. It all comes down to discipline and not flying in the air on ball fakes or picking up ticky-tack fouls, something Daye has struggled with at times.
Staying on the floor is step one, but I think that we all know Mark Few did not give Austin a scholarship to merely take up space. He's got such an outstanding set of weapons that he presents a matchup problem for any team he faces. Although streaky, he can hit the three-point shot but Daye has made a name for himself at Gonzaga for his ability to take power forwards that are uncomfortable on the perimeter and drive on them. Make no mistake, North Carolina is not a good defensive team and guys like Deon Thompson and Ed Davis are not good perimeter defenders. Daye should be able to drive into the lane and make mid-range shots at will. Much like Josh Heytvelt and Matt Bouldin, Daye has to get good looks early and develop a rhythm. Games against Arizona early in the season and Santa Clara in the WCC Tournament show that he can take over a game and I think that he has the ability to take over against Carolina.
Don't expect to see a whole lot of missed shots in this game. Both North Carolina and Gonzaga are excellent scoring teams and have been playing very good offensive basketball recently. In games like this, rebounding is going to be huge. Any chance you can get to keep North Carolina at one possession per trip down the court will be huge. If they are able to get a few offensive rebounds here and there, they will bury you. They have Tyler Hansbrough, who has the biggest motor in the nation and Thompson and Davis who are both uber-long forwards that can rebound. Heytvelt is going to have his hands full with Hansbrough so it is crucial that Daye does not allow tip-ins ala Western Kentucky or else the game could get out of hand quickly. At 6'11'' and with an ungodly wingspan, Daye has the frame to rebound at an insane rate but it comes down to his physicality and whether or not he wants to assert himself on the glass and take his game to that next level. Ed Davis is still a raw freshman and Thompson could not hold a candle to the frame and ability of Daye so the ball is truly in Austin's court. From our view it is pretty obvious that if he wants it enough, he can rule to court on Friday night.
In no way am I expecting Austin to come out and put on his best Blake Griffin impersenation. He's not going to put up 30 and pull down 20 boards but it would be a beautiful thing if he could grind out a double-double and quiet all the naysayers that call him immature and a whiner. There is no bigger stage this weekend than the one Gonzaga will be on and it would be great to see Daye put on a show for the paying customers in Memphis.