Has there ever been a game that Gonzaga fans have anticipated more than this Sweet 16 match up with North Carolina? Granted, I was only 12 years old when the Zags made the Elite 8, so I dont really have perspective on the atmosphere prior to that game, but there is no doubt that in my 4 years in Spokane, this game takes the cake. Tomorrow night, the FedEx Forum will host two of the most talented teams in college basketball, in a game which will likely feature 6-8 future NBA players. Fans will get to see Mark Few and Roy Williams match wits, and perhaps witness Gonzaga truly arrive on the scene as one of the premier programs in the country. While Gonzaga fans are certainly proud of what this program has accomplished, these next few days could serve as the catapult to elite status. It all starts tomorrow night, when Gonzaga has the opportunity to knock off one of most distinguished and decorated programs in college basketball, and return to the Elite 8 for the first time since 1999.
Heading into 2009, there was talk among the talking heads that this North Carolina team could go down as one of the best in college basketball history. The Tar Heels began the season 13-0, and it appeared that there was no way to slow down this tremendous team. However, in their first game of 2009, UNC was shocked by Boston College at home. Despite playing at a high level the rest of the season, North Carolina dropped games against Wake Forest, Maryland, and Florida St. Although the Tar Heels lost the sense of invincibility that existed at the start of the season, there is no denying the great talent and athleticism that Roy Williams has at his disposal.
Leading the way for UNC is Ty Lawson. Although he is arguably the most indispensable player in the country, Lawson is probably most known for his infamous toe injury. Lawson averaged 16.1 points and 6.5 assists and earned ACC Player of the Year for his terrific season. Lawson is without a doubt the quickest player in college basketball, and has a knack for hitting clutch shots. Although he doesn't have a strong left hand, Lawson is so quick and strong with is right, that he is nearly impossible to guard. However, eyes will be on his injured toe, which kept him out of 3 straight games at the end of the year, and has bothered him during practice this week. I expect to see a combo of Pargo, Goodson, and Downs defending Lawson during the game.
Is there a more recognizable player in college basketball then Tyler Hansbrough. Whether you love him or hate him, you must appreciate and respect the stats that he puts up. Hansbrough averaged 21.2 points and 8.1 rebounds this season, which is actually a slight dip from his junior year. Hansbrough has a knack for finishing around the rim, although he can be limited by athletic bigs. It's also important that the Zags don't let Hansbrough get easy points at the line, as he is the NCAA leader in free throw makes. I expect to see Heytvelt and Foster shadowing Hansbrough around the court, and not allowing him any easy looks.
The one guy that the Zags must keep in their sight at all times is Wayne Ellington. Although he doesn't get the publicity that Lawson and Hansbrough do, he is as dangerous as both. Ellington is an excellent shooter, and has scored over 20 points in each of his last 3 games. He averaged 15.7 points this season, and shot over 40% from beyond the arc. It's vital that Downs, Bouldin, and Gray always know where Ellington is on the court, and do not allow him to get east looks. Ellington is not a great scorer when he has a defender in his face, but he will make a team pay for any open looks he gets. If the Zags can limit Ellington, I really like their chances of winning.
North Carolina has been the popular pick by many media pundits to win the National Championship. They have great scorers and can be nearly impossible to guard. However, there are few teams that match up as well athletically as Gonzaga. The Zags have the length and talent to play with the Tar Heels and take them out of their comfort zone. If Jeremy Pargo can put together a vintage performance, Gonzaga will win this game. The Zags need Pargo to be the leader and the star that he is capable of being, and I really believe he will deliver on the biggest stage. Behind a terrific Jeremy Pargo performance, and great contributions from Bouldin and Daye, the Zags will bring the madness to March with a 85-77 victory.