The No. 8 Gonzaga Bulldogs take on the top seeded Arizona Wildcats in the third round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. The two teams have met since then, but the easiest memory of both is in 2003 when Gonzaga lost to the once-again top seeded Arizona Wildcats in a double-overtime classic.
That game, for me, is one of the most entertaining games Gonzaga has ever played in the post-season. It is also a positive reminder that games against the No. 1 seeds aren't decided before they start, despite the attitude some people show.
The Bulldogs already displayed that on Friday, pushing past the No. 9 Oklahoma State Cowboys in a foul-plagued grinder of a basketball game. Everyone and their dead grandmother was picking Oklahoma State in the contest, but the Zags tuned down Marcus Smart and had a rather comfortable victory.
Kevin Pangos busted out in a big way, leading all scorers with 26 points and taking care of business on the free throw line down the stretch. Przemek Karnowski was a monster down low, keeping out of foul trouble and finishing with 15 points and 10 rebounds. The Zags won simply because they shot better, shooting 50 percent from the floor as a team.
Arizona ended up with a comfortable win, but it wasn't as big of a win as you expect from a No. 1 vs. No. 16 seed matchup. Aaron Gordon had 16 points and Nick Johnson added 18, but the Arizona offense went silent multiple times down the stretch. Weber State, despite being down by 20 at one point in the game, was able to go on a couple of runs to make it slightly interesting in the end.
Meet the opponent
Arizona Wildcats, KenPom #3, RPI #2
Those are some gaudy rankings up there, but it is true, Arizona is easily one of the best teams in the nation. The merely opened up the season on a 21-game winning streak and lost their four games by a combined 14 points. The win streak was predicated by the team's defense, which according to KenPom is the tops in the nation. Arizona holds opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 42.1 percent (the D-I average is 49.5 percent). The Wildcats collapse on the perimeter and make it very hard to find an open shot.
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Arizona is also a slightly different team without starting forward Brandon Ashley. As AZ Desert Swarm wrote, Ashley was one of the few players on Arizona's offense that could create his own shot. Since he went down with an injury on Feb. 1, the Wildcats lost four games. Without him, the offense is junior guard Nick Johnson and freshman phenom forward Aaron Gordon. There isn't much offense beyond that, in general. The Wildcats score just 72.9 points per game, but they score those points at an efficient clip -- hitting 47 percent of their field goals.
Back to that defense for a second, however. 7' center Kaleb Tarczewski holds it down on the defensive end and Gordon helps clog that paint. This is going to be a big battle down low between those two and the Gonzaga bigs. Junior guard T.J. McConnell is one of the best defending guards in the nation and will most likely be slotted to harass Pangos the entire night.
What to watch out for
This game will be an uphill battle for Gonzaga. Arizona is the top seed in the west region for a very good reason, and the Wildcats will be the best team that Gonzaga has faced all year long by quite the margin. Still, this is a game that Gonzaga can win, especially considering how well they played against Oklahoma State.
Pangos stepped up in a big way, and having McConnell on him will be troublesome. That still leaves Gary Bell to do his thing, and against Oklahoma State, he started out exactly how Gonzaga needed to. If the Bulldogs are able to jump to an early lead, no matter how slight, they have the advantage because the Wildcats are a team that isn't exactly built to catch up.
Inevitably, Arizona will catch up. The Wildcats take high percentage shots and then make stops on the defensive end. There won't be a lot of fastbreak opportunities in this game for Gonzaga, so Mark Few and company will need to make sure that the half court offense is set. This means a lot of extra passes to make sure that the shots we take are the shots we want.
This will also be a game that it is never too late to give up hope in. If Gonzaga is trailing by 10 with three minutes left, expect the end of the game to be a very long affair. Arizona is one of the worst free throw shooting teams out there, hitting just 65 percent as a team. Gordon makes Karnowski look like Derek Raivio, hitting just 43 percent of his attempts. Johnson can hit his shots and Tarczewski can hit his. The rest of the team can't and this can definitely be worked to Gonzaga's advantage.
The big question mark is if Gonzaga can adjust to the pace of the game. Arizona doesn't push the ball as much and the slower games this year have been some of Gonzaga's worst games. If Gonzaga falls down by 10 early, it'll be incredibly tough to climb back in against this Arizona defense. If Gonzaga is able to keep this a two possession game in crunch time, there is a good chance the Bulldogs can pull the upset and head to the Sweet 16.