Well, this is a pretty outstanding preview to be able to write. For the first time since 1999, Gonzaga is playing for a chance to play in the Final 4. The Zags will square off with the vaunted Duke Blue Devils, the No. 1 seed in the South region. Duke struggled last night with Utah but never really seemed like they were going to give away the game as they took down the Utes by a score of 63-57. Duke enters this game as the slight favorite in Las Vegas' eyes but, on paper, this should be one of the best games of the tournament as the two teams are very evenly matched.
Gonzaga's Sweet 16 matchup against UCLA was flat out bizarre. It was Gonzaga's worst shooting night since early December at 40% but it was somehow enough to get past the Bruins by 12 points. It goes without saying that the Bulldogs can't have such a poor shooting performance against the Blue Devils. The hope is that the UCLA game was a good warm up for the Zags to get used to the odd atmosphere at NRG Stadium. With that said, let's look at four very crucial facets of the game that we will be watching as Gonzaga's hopes to extend its run into the Final 4:
Does the hottest perimeter shooting team win?
While Gonzaga shot the ball really, really bad against UCLA, the Blue Devils seemed to also suffer from that same 'NRG' affliction. Duke was 44% from the floor and just 3-9 from the beyond the arc. Gonzaga also made three attempts from beyond the arc but they threw up a dismal 19 tries. With both of these teams heavily weighted towards interior play, it seems like the x-factor in this game will be which team can figure out how to shoot the ball from deep in Houston. This will become extremely important if Gonzaga elects to double team Jahlil Okafor down low. That choice will free up Duke's perimeter defenders and could lead to a long Elite 8 contest.
How does Gonzaga deal with Justise Winslow?
This is the question that kinda freaks me out. To me, Winslow is a rich, rich man's version of Kyle Collinsworth. This is no diss to Collinsworth, but Winslow is just outstanding. He's a matchup nightmare at 6'6'', 225lbs as he is extremely athletic and literally does it all for the Blue Devils. He had 21 points and 10 boards against Utah and dominated the action. The interesting thing to see will be how Mark Few decides to attack him. If he elects to employ a lineup featuring Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis, it could put Winslow in a tough position of covering the physical Sabonis. That said, Sabonis defending Winslow could leave the Bulldogs very vulnerable. Look for a lot of looks on Winslow including Sabonis, Wiljter, and probably even some Kyle Dranginis.
Can Gonzaga's depth be the difference?
Excluding Kentucky, Duke may arguably have the most talented starting lineup in the nation. Jahlil Okafor is a future NBA all-star and he's flanked by Winslow and a pair of outstanding guards in Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook. Other than that, Duke has not had much consistent production. The four I mentioned earlier account for virtually all of Duke's offensive output so the Bulldogs definitely have more offensive contributors. This could particularly help in the post as Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski, and Domantas Sabonis are playing at an exceptionally high level and could put a lot of pressure on Okafor.
Can Przemek Karnowski avoid foul trouble?
This may be the biggest question of the game, in all honesty. Jahlil Okafor is one of the most agile big men that has come through college basketball in quite some time. If he catches the ball outside the paint and posts up Karnowski, Przemek will have to be very smart about how aggressively he defends him. Okafor has the quickness to get by Karnowski which is why mixing in some double team situations will be so crucial. If Karnowski gets into foul trouble early, it will be an uphill battle as he's the Bulldogs best post defender.
Those four questions are crucial in my book. If Gonzaga can provide a favorable answer for a couple of these, I think we are talking next week about how the Bulldogs matchup in their Final 4 game. In the end, the Bulldogs depth and skill in the post is what gives me great hope. I think Kevin Pangos and Kyle Wiltjer will be able to get some quality looks and they will cash in. Meanwhile, the Zags post players will do enough to overmatch the young Blue Devils interior players and, most importantly, will stay on the floor and not let the officials decide this game.
Prediction: Gonzaga 82 - Duke 77