While there are few things that I am 100% sure about, one thing that I am willing to guarantee is that Gonzaga will not lose by 21 points to Washington St. this year. For those of you who have done everything humanly possible to forget about that dark day last season, I apologize profusely for even mentioning one of the most embarrassing games I have witnessed as a Gonzaga fan. With that said, beyond my initial prediction, I really have no feel for what we will see from either team tomorrow night in the opening game of ESPN's Tip-Off Marathon.
I don't want to provide another recap of the season-opener against EWU, as Zach did an awesome job describing that "interesting" performance. However, if Gonzaga continues to struggle so mightily defending the perimeter, this will be a long season. Unfortunately, I think that part of the issue is that the players most suited to play defense on the perimeter, were in fact spending much of the game on the bench.
In order to play great defense, an individual must have great instincts and great lateral quickness. You can be an adequate defender with either of those attributes, but to be a great defender you must possess both. My reason for this explanation is because I believe that the lack of players who have both attributes is what has plagued Gonzaga's perimeter defense. While the Mike Hart issue has been beaten to death, anyone who believes that he is a great defender is not watching the game. I applaud Hart for his hustle and grittiness on the court. However, his defensive instincts allowed numerous open looks for EWU.
One particular play that is glaring in my mind was when Hart had a choice to pick up an open EWU player that had the ball on the wing at the three-point line, or stay with his man in the corner. If there is one thing I learned from being around basketball, it's that the only player on the court that can score is the one with the basketball. This may seem like a simple idea, but watching Hart choose to stay with his man, as opposed to guarding the guy with the ball on the three-point line, made me realize that despite his hustle and strength, Hart doesn't possess the instincts to be a great defensive player. I'm sure many of you can guess the result of the play, but for those who can't, it was an EWU player draining the open shot. My hope for this season is that when Guy Landry-Edi returns from suspension, and as GBJ gets more comfortable, those two can emerge as guys who can limit open looks on the perimeter.
Washington St. is a team that has a potentially explosive backcourt, but lacks the frontline to really compete in the Pac-12 this season. The combination of Reggie Moore and Faisal Aden is pretty darn impressive, although both guys are coming off injuries that have limited them in the preseason. Freshman guard DaVonte Lacy will also see a lot of minutes, as the Cougars hope to use a committee of guards to replace the departed Klay Thompson.
Unfortunately for WSU, it doesn't have anyone who can replicate the type of impact that DeAngelo Casto. Junior C Brock Motum will be the primary frontcourt option for the Cougs, but he will face a tall task trying to slow down Robert Sacre and Sam Dower.
My hope and expectation is that we will see GBJ grow more comfortable now that he has hopefully taken care of some of the jitters that were to be expected in his first regular season game. I was impressed with how composed Kevin Pangos was in his debut, and it seems that it is just a matter of time before he is the starting PG. Pangos is a strong decision-maker and seems to have the ability to hit shots from the perimeter. I will be curious to see how he handles a guy like Moore on both ends of the court, as I don't think he has faced anyone with that kind of athleticism and strength.
This game will ultimately come down to whether or not the Gonzaga guards can contain the Wazzu backcourt. After the performance against EWU, my confidence isn't extraordinarily high that they can. However, I do think that the Zags can utilize the size and skill advantage they have on the frontline, highlighted by the impressive Elias Harris, to wear down WSU. Although this might surprise some people, my gut says that we see a much better performance from Gonzaga, and that the Zags pick up a 77-68 win.