Every year before the tournament starts I have a terrifying thought. "What if this year is all chalk and 'Madness' doesn't come to fruition". Needless to say, that notion is usually dismissed by the first or second game of the day on Thursday and that is exactly what happened yesterday as it may have been the greatest day in March Madness history. Statistically speaking, it did have the most close games as five contests were decided by one point.
Tonight, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are looking to have a smoother ride as they kick off their tournament run against the Bison of North Dakota State. The champions of the Summit League are clearly the large underdog in this game but they do have the taste of what an upset feels like and you better believe they watched yesterday's games and constantly thought "why not us...again?"
The Bison defeated No. 5 seed Oklahoma last year in the Spokane Arena in the second round and, while that team was very different, there are a number of players still around that saw what it took to take down a power team.
For the Bulldogs, this year represents another chance to 'break through' in the NCAA Tournament. There is no doubting what this program has become and how remarkable of a feat it is that they have sustained such success over the years but the "yeah, but" is the NCAA Tournament. For this team, it is about not thinking about the "yeah, but". I am a firm believer that, while this team wears the same Gonzaga uniform as prior teams, it is vastly different.
This is a strong defensive club that allows just 61 points per game which is top-50 in the nation. The even better news is that they score with the best of them at 79 points per game. They have an edge in guys like Domantas Sabonis and veteran players like Gary Bell and Kevin Pangos that have seen great success and even greater heartbreak.
Gonzaga's defense will be tested by the Bison. In Lawrence Alexander, North Dakota State has a player that can win ballgames all by himself and become a star in March. He averages 19 points per game and shoots a blazing 44% from deep. If he sees a couple shots go in early, it could be a very nervous time for the Gonzaga faithful. Look for Gary Bell to camp out alongside Alexander and follow him all over the court. In Kyle Dranginis and Eric McClellan, the Zags have a pair of bench defenders that can also apply great pressure.
Speaking of pressure, the art of an upset is predicated on a sleeping power team that simply allows the underdog to hang around early and, by the time the power team turns it on, you have allowed them to gain too much confidence. Gonzaga has been outstanding this year when it applies three-quarter court pressure to opposing teams by using the length of a Dranginis, McClellan, or Byron Wesley. It would be wise to come out and show NDSU right away that they will have to work for every bucket rather than allowing them to settle in and get open looks.
Offensively, it should be more of the same for Gonzaga. While North Dakota State is a solid defensive club, they have no way of matching up with Gonzaga's front line. The Bison's tallest player is 6'9'' and their leading rebounder is 6'6'' Dexter Werner and he pulls in just 5 boards per game. Similar to what we have seen as of late, every possession should run though Przemek Karnowski, Kyle Wiltjer, and Domantas Sabonis. North Dakota State's tendency is to let opposing teams operate in half court sets and that should be a very welcome thing for the Zags and should lead to a whole lot of points for the Bulldogs' low post threats.
While statistics show what the outcome of this one should be, we all know far too well that you can throw every stat out in the NCAA Tournament. The fear for the Zags is a slow start in the first half which we have become very accustomed to as of late. If Gary Bell can give Lawrence Alexander the same treatment he have Tyler Haws this season, however, I think we will all be very pleased heading to bed tonight.