The Gonzaga Bulldogs open up their 16th-straight NCAA Tournament appearance with a battle against the No. 9 Oklahoma State Cowboys, with the winner most likely playing the No. 1 Arizona Wildcats in the third round.
With all of the debate about how good Gonzaga was, or how bad from some people's point of view, none of that matters as a loss sends you home at this point of the year. Losses have sent the Zags home earlier than expected more often than not lately. Gonzaga hasn't lost in the third round three-straight years, and considering the draw and seeding finds itself in one of the harder spots to advance.
This is Oklahoma State's second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, much of that because of star guard Marcus Smart. A lot more was expected of the Cowboys this year, but a long, seven-game losing streak sent Oklahoma State into the depths of the seeding. Still, with Smart on the team, the Cowboys are a threat to upset anyone, starting with Gonzaga.
It'll be the sixth meeting between the teams, and it is a matchup that Gonzaga has owned. The Bulldogs are 5-0 against the Cowboys, with the latest win coming last season on the road. Kevin Pangos scored 23 and Kelly Olynyk added 21 in a 69-68 win.
Meet the opponent
Oklahoma State Cowboys, KenPom #22, RPI #45
Half the time people wax about the Cowboys as if the team is merely Marcus Smart and company. Unfortunately, for the Zags there is a lot more offense to this squad. Oklahoma State averages 80.3 points per game, good for 18th in the nation. Smart leads the team with 17.8 points per game, but is quickly followed by a flurry of teammates. Senior guard Markel Brown averages 17.1 points, junior forward Le'Bryan Nash averages 14.2 points and sophomore guard Phil Forte averages 13.3 points. The takeaway when looking at the Cowboys is that they have almost more weapons than they know what to do with.
Oklahoma State comes by these points in a variety of fashion. Forte was one of the top outside shooters in the Big 12, converting 44 percent of his three pointers, which are the vast majority of his shots. Brown isn't half bad from beyond the arc as well. He is less prolific in his attempts but still converts 38 percent of his threes. Smart hasn't been shy to a shoot a three, but he also isn't the biggest threat, hitting just 30 percent from three point range. The Cowboys attempt a lot of threes, which is to be expected for a team starting so many guards. The main offensive focus for Oklahoma State is on getting to the line, which few teams can do better. The Cowboys shot 927 free throw attempts this season, 12th most in the nation. By comparison, Gonzaga attempted just 739 free throws.
The Cowboys still play aggressive and solid defense. They are ranked No. 29 in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency statistic. Much of the defensive intensity also comes from Smart. Smart averaged 2.8 steals per game, and was sixth in the nation with 83 total. Smart is probably the best all-around player in the NCAA right now. Gonzaga will have to figure out how to keep him human.
What to watch out for
A lot of people are writing off Gonzaga before the game even starts because of all this offense. The thing is, that doesn't take into account Gonzaga's defense whatsoever. That is a fair overlook, however, because Gonzaga isn't exactly known for playing tough defense. This year, our defense has actually been a brighter spot than our offense. We are the 15th best defense according to KenPom, with a lot of that change owing to Przemek Karnowski's evolution in the paint. Opponents shoot 39 percent from the floor against Gonzaga, good for 18th best in the nation. Much of that stems from Gonzaga's ability to disrupt passing lanes and force broken plays. For whatever reason this year, the Bulldogs have figured out how to play on the defensive end, and opposing teams often resort to a one-on-five matchup instead of halfcourt offense.
Out of any team that can win a one-on-five matchup it is Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have a host of players who can score, and for the most part, they will score. Gonzaga doesn't necessarily have to figure out how to shut down Smart, because there are three very capable scorers waiting in the wings to take over. It really seems pretty hard to shut down all four as well, so the key will be to just stay in front of the ball and really knuckle down on defense. Smart and company will drive to the hoop and score some wonky shots, but if Gonzaga is forcing the tough shot on each possession, they'll have a good chance to pull out ahead.
As noted with the free throws, Karnowski is going to be a very important role player in this game. No player changes the offensive approach like Karnowski does, but I'd be surprised if he ends up seeing that many minutes. Oklahoma State drives the ball and picks up fouls, a lot. Karnowski is generally susceptible to bad fouls like that, which means the rotations on the defensive ends need to be tight so Przemek isn't left high and dry underneath the hoop so often.
At the same time, Karnowski and Dower's low post presence is going to be a game changer. Oklahoma State is a lot of things, tall is definitely not one of them. The Cowboys two most common players at center are 6'8 Kamari Murphy and the 6'7 Nash. Travis Ford has 6'8 Mike Cobbins on the bench for cleanup duty, but this is a team that is severely undersized up front. Expect the Cowboys to collapse any time Karnowski or Dower gets the ball down low, and if the outside shot is falling for Gonzaga, expect a lot of open three pointers.
Guard play is going to be the key for Gonzaga in this game. The guards need to be able to apply the pressure to Oklahoma State, and at the same time need to withstand the pressure from Oklahoma State. The Cowboys lack size down low, but across the board in the backcourt they are bigger, stronger and faster. How smaller guards like David Stockton respond to this pressure will be interesting. Will Kevin Pangos reclaim any of that magic he had earlier in the season? Despite the ‘breakout' against Pacific, Pangos averaged just 9.3 shots during the WCC Tournament. Much of that stemmed from the fact he took a total of 15 shots, nine of those in the first game against Santa Clara. Gonzaga needs more of Pangos, no matter what.
This is going to be a close game, and luckily for the Zags the seeding puts it in an arena that should lean a bit more friendly for the Bulldogs. I'm not making bets on this game though, outside of the fact that it will be a very entertaining game.
Time: 1:40 p.m. PT