When it was announced that BYU was set to join the WCC for the 2011-2012 season, I was happy that the first time these two teams matched up, Jimmer Fredette wouldn't be involved. However, when the draw for the NCAA Tournament was released, it became clear that this potential rivalry might get started a year early. After BYU took care of business against Wofford, and the Zags put on a show in a win over St. John's, this exciting matchup became a reality.
If someone could guarantee me that we would see the same performance from Gonzaga that we saw on Thursday night, I wouldn't even waste my time writing this preview. While there is no doubt that this team is peaking at just the right point in the season, the effort against St. John's was one of the best I have seen from a Gonzaga team in the past five years. From the excellent ball movement on the offensive end, to the excellent pressure on the defensive end, this was one of the most complete 40-minute performances this fanbase has been treated to.
The interesting aspect of the NCAA Tournament is how different styles of play emerge throughout each round. After facing an incredibly athletic and intense defensive team like St. John's, the Zags must be prepared to face a team that will shoot the ball from the perimeter throughout the game, while attempting to get the tempo and style of play to its liking. There will be no fullcourt pressure from BYU and this game will not reflect the physical nature that was expected when facing a Big East program in the second round.
Just as it did against St. John's, Gonzaga has a formidable advantage in the paint against BYU. This is especially true with the suspension of Brandon Davies, who is an excellent athlete and a guy the Gonzaga coaching staff thought highly enough to bring in on an official visit. Davies was the one guy on the BYU roster that had the athleticism and length to matchup with guys like Rob Sacre, Elias Harris and Sam Dower, Without Davies, the Zags need to make a concerted effort to slow down the tempo of the game and get the ball in the paint. This is the type of matchup where Gonzaga will have the strength and size advantage at nearly ever position and will need to utilize that to leave Denver with a victory.
Now this clearly wouldn't be a preview about BYU if there wasn't a little more of a mention about Jimmer. If Gonzaga is going to win this game, it needs to extend the perimeter defense and force guys like Fredette and Jackson Emery to shoot contested jumpers. If BYU can get the tempo in its favor, and use transition offense to get open looks, it will be the Cougars that advance to the Sweet 16. The tempo of the game will be the deciding factor, as if BYU can't get up a lot of shots, it can't win the game.
This bracket has always been favorable for Gonzaga. BYU is an excellent shooting team, and has arguably the best scorer in the country. However, it's not a team that is going to overwhelm Gonzaga on the defensive end and is not a team that possesses elite athleticism. If the coaching staff can figure out a way to extend the defense and control the tempo, the Zags will be on the way to New Orleans next week. After the masterpiece of a coaching job that the staff put together on Thursday, it seems that they have a great feel for this group of guys and how to make sure they follow the gameplan. Therefore, I think Gonzaga continues its excellent play and leaves Denver with the 70-59 win.