I'll be the first to admit, I try and temper expectations with the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Every year, I (and everyone else for that matter) have hopped on the hype train, it ends as an exercise in disappointment come March. Games like Friday's demolition of Sacramento State, however, make it hard to temper those expectations.
There has been a lot of press about how good this Gonzaga team is and about how it is Mark Few's best chance in a while to hit the Final Four. On Friday, the offense was clicking and the defense was locked in. It seems dumb to be making all of these claims after just one game, but Gonzaga looked so good it makes me irrational. Sports are irrational.
I, for one, am glad Mark Few and company were able to schedule a good team so early in the season. The Southern Methodist Mustangs aren't as good as they were supposed to be because Emmanuel Mudiay's eligibility was murky and he ended up making money in China instead. The luster took another blow when junior big man Markus Kennedy was declared ineligible for the first semester of this season.
Still, this is a team coached by Larry Brown in a major conference. A win here is a great resume builder come Selection Sunday.
Meet the opponent
Southern Methodist Mustangs, 1-0, KenPom #35
The Mustangs make it all work on defense and they have the length and athleticism to give Gonzaga fits. Down low, the Mustangs are anchored by senior centers Cannen Cunningham and Yanick Moreira. Both players have the height to deal with Przemek Karnowski and clog the lane. Cunningham averaged almost a block per game last season in just 12.9 minutes. Moreira averaged close to four rebounds in just 13.5 minutes. The true stalwart of the Mustangs frontcourt was Kennedy, but he isn't here at the moment.
Sophomore forward Ben Moore is filling Kennedy's shoes, and so far he has done an admirable job (albeit, one game is a small sample size). Standing at 6'8, Moore had 22 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two blocks in a 39 point win over Lamar to open the season. He did it all efficiently as well, going 8-for-12 from the field and hitting 6-of-8 free throws.
The final player to watch for is junior guard Nic Moore. Last season, he was forgotten in the American Conference behind All-Americans Shabazz Napier, Russ Smith and Sean Kilpatrick. This year, without any body in his way, he is primed to win the American Player of the Year. If the Bulldogs want to win this game, they will need to lock him down.
What to watch out for
Who will replace Markus Kennedy?
Kennedy was the team's second leading scorer behind Nic Moore last season. Although Ben Moore stepped it up once so far, the Mustangs aren't sure who the alternate go-to-guy is yet. Nothing against Moore, but Lamar isn't exactly top-quality competition. Larry Brown was planning on using Moore in a more perimeter role this season, but the Kennedy issue has forced his hand. Moore might be that guy, but he isn't playing in a role he is used to. This time around, he'll have to defend against the likes of Kyle Wiljter at the same time.
Can the Bulldogs grind out points?
The buckets came often and easily for the Bulldogs against Sacramento State, and the results reflect that. Gonzaga shot 62 percent from the field on Friday and hit 10-of-24 three-point attempts. Don't expect it to be as easy against SMU. Last season, the Mustangs ranked No. 17 according to KenPom's defensive ratings. Opponents shot 32.1 percent from beyond the arc and a mere 42.7 percent from two point - that mark being the ninth-best in the nation.
Wiljter's threat from the outside definitely helps open up the floor for Gonzaga. But don't expect the Bulldogs to be able to run away so easily with this game. There are a lot of new faces on the offense and seeing how well they flow together in the half court set will be important.
Who wins the turnover battle?
Last season, the Bulldogs did a halfway decent job of taking care of the ball, but a pretty terrible job of forcing turnovers. On the flipside, the Mustangs did a horrible job of taking care of the ball and were one of the better squads at forcing turnovers. Gonzaga forced 22 turnovers against Sacramento State, and with the renewed focus on defense by the squad last season it seems like those hallmarks of last season are carrying over.
Overall, most of the squad did a decent job of keeping track of the ball on Friday. Then again, Sacramento State isn't the hardest defensive squad, and the Bulldogs still finished with 12 turnovers (four of which came from Angel Nunez). SMU is definitely the underdog coming into the game. Unlike most opponents the Bulldogs usually face at home, SMU also has more than enough in the tank to pull the upset. If the Zags keep track of the ball, they should be able to put this one away.
Time: 8 p.m. PT
Radio: AM 1510 KGA (Spokane), AM 880 KIXI (Seattle), AM 1360 KUIK (Portland)