Well gang, it is here. This is the game we have been talking about since before the season started. It is the game we've been talking about since the loss to Dayton. It is the game we've been talking about every post-game in the WCC. It is the Gonzaga Bulldogs heading on the road to take on the Memphis Tigers for the big win for the profile.
It has been a glorious agreement between the two teams to provide each other with the potential for a resume boosting win. Usually, Memphis has taken up the better part of that agreement, going 5-2 over Gonzaga in the past seven meeting. This Memphis Tiger squad is like every other Josh Pastner coached squad -- quite good. The Tigers peaked in the polls at No. 11, but it's been a bit downhill since then. The vaunted freshmen class hasn't performed as well as they probably were expecting. The backcourt is still fantastic, but playing in the new American Athletic Conference has been a slight rude awakening for Memphis.
Tip-off is at 6 p.m. PT and the game is broadcast nationally on ESPN.
Meet the opponent
Memphis Tigers (17-5), KenPom #33, RPI #31
With a star studded lineup coming in and the decision of Joe Jackson to return for another go around, the Tigers were supposed to compete for the Final Four. So far, things have gone mostly according to plan. Ignore the lack of ranking with the Tigers, they are still a very good team. They are a high scoring team that is incredibly aggressive on defense. In shorter words, they are athletic. Gonzaga has always had trouble against athletic teams.
All things start in the back court for Memphis. Senior Joe Jackson leads the team with 14.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.0 steals a game. He is flanked by a combination of seniors Chris Crawford, Geron Jonson and Michael Dixon. Don't expect a lot of mistakes between these guys. Combined they see the floor for around 109 minutes and average 7.6 turnovers per game.
After that, Memphis likes to kick it into Shaq Goodwin. The sophomore forward averages 12.5 blocks, 6.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. Combined with five-star recruit Austin Nichols, Memphis is brimming with talent at most every position. However, like Gonzaga, they are a bit smaller up front. So, like Gonzaga, they unveil a four-guard lineup quite often.
What to watch out for
How Gonzaga responds to a team with Memphis' defensive prowess will be interesting. Ball control is of the utmost priority in this game, as Memphis' total steals of 211 is good for sixth in the nation. They harass every passing lane and make you work for every shot. Teams average 16 turnovers per game against them. They extend that defense on the perimeter as well. Teams only shoot 30 percent from beyond the arc against them.
If Gonzaga wants to win this game, they need to exploit the matchup advantage inside to help open up the perimeter. The Bulldogs aren't going to find a lot of open threes available, but if they can force Memphis to double down on Przemek Karnowski and Sam Dower, that might give some breathing room for the shooter. Karnowski and Dower hold both a height advantage and a offensive skill advantage over their Memphis counterparts. There will be mismatches down low, and Gonzaga needs to take advantage.
Zach alluded to it the other day, but it will be interesting seeing how much Gerard Coleman and Angel Nunez play in this game. Regardless of which camp you find yourself in over these apparently polarizing figures, you can't argue the fact that the two are way more athletic than half of the rest of the team combined. Will this be the game for them to shine in, both offensively and defensively? Or is this the game they won't see a lot of minutes in...again?
This isn't necessarily a must win game for Gonzaga, but it is about as close as you can get. If the Zags lose at Memphis, they'll need to win the whole shebang in Las Vegas to feel good about their chances in March. If the Zags win at Memphis, barring a WCC meltdown, an at-large bid is basically assured. With the struggles and the discontent swirling around this program as of late, we can all agree that a win over Memphis will be great for our collective psyches.
Last but not least, go Zags.