It seems a bit dumb to be this excited about a game this early in December. Gonzaga playing Arizona doesn't really mean anything. If Gonzaga wins, we have a "signature" win and everyone that has already convinced themselves this is a good team will be further convinced. If we lose, Gonzaga loses to a top 5 team, and, well, that doesn't really matter much in the grand scheme of things.
But that is logic, and logic has no place in the irrational heart and mind of a sports fanatic. Basketball is a sport where intangible things like hustle, heart and coachability are still relevant aspects to a game. When you aren't sure how to specifically describe a player, you use vague terms like athletic, meaning the player can do one of many things: run fast, dunk hard or jump high.
Gonzaga isn't the most athletic team. That doesn't mean they aren't good, however. But it is one of the first things that people point out when we play other athletic teams. This is a trend and one he have to come to expect. Arizona, on the other hand, is a pretty athletic team. Announcers will mention how athletic Arizona is compared to Gonzaga -- again, another trend we have to come to expect.
The Bulldogs had a semi-easy schedule coming up to now. Arizona is the first of three consecutive games against Pac-12 teams, and I don't care about you but I've watched enough bad losses to Washington State that I am permanently scared of them. There is no such thing as a must-win game this early in the season, but man, that victory would taste so, so great -- especially considering our history (or lack of good history) against the Wildcats throughout the years.
Meet the opponent
Arizona Wildcats, 7-0, KenPom #7
Eesh. Where to start. Remember that team that chewed up Gonzaga and tossed them like a half eaten apple into the trash instead of the compost bin last NCAA Tournament? Well most of them are still back. And the ones that left are replaced with other versions of incredibly good basketball players. This is a good team that might better than last year's team and has potentially four future 2015 NBA Draft picks on it.
Arizona is incredibly athletic and tough up front between Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley. Then the first person they bring off the bench is a freshman by the name of Stanley Johnson, who through seven games is Arizona's leading scorer with 14.1 points per game. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is one of the best wing players in the country and adds 13.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. You may remember him from dropping 18 points on Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament last year. The sophomore is one of those glue guys who just does a bit of everything at an elite level. The only thing Hollis-Jefferson isn't good at is scoring threes.
Then, you have the experienced back court of T.J. McConnell and Gabe York. McConnell is one of the better defensive, pass first point guards in the country. He currently owns a defensive rating of 89.3. McConnell is a smart guard, and although he hasn't scored as much as he normally does, he hasn't needed to. He is always capable of dropping 20 points in a heart beat, however.
Here is how the Arizona game plan goes. Step 1: annihilate mind, body and souls in the paint. Step 1a: if paint is crowded, kick it out for an open three. Step 2: annihilate mind, body and souls on defense. Step 3: see Step 1.
What to watch out for
How do the Gonzaga bigs handles the Arizona bigs?
It'll be a different story this year because Gonzaga has a bit of help behind Przemek Karnowski. Still, I wouldn't just say welp we have Domantas Sabonis so this is all gravy! Arizona's bigs are very good at pounding it down low and taking high percentage shots. Kyle Wiltjer isn't exactly known as a defensive wizard, and Sabonis seems to be plagued with the foul issues that bothered Karnowski his freshman season. Sabonis does find himself in foul trouble pretty easily sometimes, and the team will need him and his rebounding efforts to keep Arizona off the offensive glass. This is easier said than done. Arizona attacks the rim -- a lot. 24.7 percent of the Wildcats points come from the free throw line. If Gonzaga finds its starters in early foul trouble, this game will be painful to watch.
Who wins the battle, Arizona's defense or Gonzaga's offense?
Arizona can definitely score with the best of them, but Gonzaga's offense is operating on a whole different level than anything the Wildcats have seen this season. As a team, the Zags have an effective field goal percentage of 58.8. They aren't turning over the ball very much. They make the extra pass to get the open man and the easy bucket. Gonzaga has some serious offensive firepower in the post, but they will have to work hard to get the ball inside. Arizona only allows 20.7 percent of a team's shots to come at the rim (per Hoop-Math.com). That means teams have to settle for a lot of two point jumpers, inevitably contested, and shoot the ball like that guy in the office who always calls out "Kobe" but has trash littered all around his can.
Gonzaga, loves to go inside to the rim. The Bulldogs have 166 shots at the rim versus 109 two point jump shots. If it isn't at the rim for Gonzaga, it is the kick out for the three. If Gonzaga comes out and hits its threes early, it'll make it a lot tougher for Arizona to crowd the paint to keep out Karnowski, Wiltjers and Sabonis. If the threes aren't falling, however, it could be a long night.
How do the Zags handle the road environment?
The win over St. John's will have an asterisk attached because it is a "neutral" court. Everyone, including everyone, knows that was essentially a road win. But it was also a road win in a rather empty Madison Square Garden. McKale Center fits 14,655 screaming maniacs. This is a fantastic team in a tough road environment, and the people there will be doing everything in their power to put Gonzaga on edge. If the Zags come out flat or scared, Arizona is one of those teams that can put together a double-digit lead with no effort.
Time: 2:15 p.m. PT
Radio: AM 1510 KGA (Spokane), AM 880 KIXI (Seattle), AM 1360 KUIK (Portland)