In previous years, you'd always see this infographic on ESPN broadcasts about how far the Gonzaga Bulldogs had travelled over the course of the season. Back in the day, the Gonzaga mantra of play anyone, anywhere was one of the hallmarks of Coach Mark Few's non-conference scheduling. Since he has built an even bigger profile for the school, Few has pumped the breaks as far as travel goes.
So we will count the Armed Forces Classic in Okinawa, Japan, as an anomaly in the normal amount of miles travelled for current Gonzaga teams.
That said, Gonzaga opens up its season with a tough test against the Pittsburgh Panthers, in a location that is 17 hours ahead of Spokane time at Camp Foster in Okinawa, Japan.
Meet the opponent
Before I start to input semi-useless conjecture into the makeup of the Panthers, I highly recommend you go and read our Q&A with Cardiac Hill. Alright, now that you have done that, let's get moving.
First thing to note about the Panthers is that even though they weren't picked to finish very high in the ACC, the metrics love them--and with good reason. Pittsburgh returns its top three players from last year: forwards Jamel Artis and Michael Young, and senior point guard James Robinson. This is a team that last year was a bit rough around the edges, but basically returns everyone with an extra year of experience.
The Panthers are also going to be severely undersized against the Gonzaga frontline. Michael Young, who often found himself at center last season, is only 6'9. Artis only stands at 6'7. On the defensive side, the Panthers should find their hands full trying to keep the Gonzaga bigs out of the paint.
What to watch out for
1. Will the Gonzaga frontline be healthy?
Domantas Sabonis took a nasty fall and was diagnosed with a back contusion. He travelled with the team to Japan, but there has been no word (as of yet) whether or not he will play. Przemek Karnowski is getting over pneumonia. This frontline has already taken licks and the season hasn't even started yet.
That said, the frontline will be the big question for the whole game. If Sabonis, Karnowski, and Kyle Wiltjer are all ready to go, it is hard to understand how Pittsburgh will even be able to defend the ball, and that will run in Gonzaga's favor. All three of the Gonzaga bigs were efficient scorers and shouldn't have too many problems making shots over the undersized Panthers lineup.
2. Look out for a lot of double teams.
Pitt is a good team, but defensively, they will have their hands full in this match. That is why we should expect a hell of a lot of double teams and whatever defensive schemes can throw the Zags off their game. On the frontcourt side, it will be imperative the Zags big men recognize the double team coming and react appropriately. Karnowski never has a problem finding the open man. Sabonis? Well, let's hope he isn't still devoted to charging up to the basket no matter how many opponents are in the way.
In the backcourt, we can probably expect a lot of pressure on Josh Perkins. If Pitt stays aggressive on defense for 40 minutes, they have a good chance of keeping within striking distance. Perkins and Eric McClellan will be aggressively challenged, and need to just play smartly throughout.
3. Clog the passing lanes.
Last season, the Panthers ranked No. 14 in the nation in total assists. Pittsburgh is always looking to make that extra pass to get that higher percentage shot. Gonzaga needs to stay aggressive on the defensive lane and force the Panthers into contested jumpers. Pitt wasn't particularly good from beyond the arc last season, but they might rely on it a bit more with the height disadvantage. Gonzaga needs to stay as aggressive on defense as they will be on offense.
Gonzaga averaged almost 12 points per game more than Pitt last season. Logic says that the Panthers don't have the firepower to keep up with the Zags to open the season, but don't expect the game to really get out of hand on either direction. The Panthers are a hard-nosed team that should do a good job of keeping the game close. They will never quite get into reach, however.
Gonzaga 75, Pittsburgh 65