The Gonzaga Bulldogs are flying down to Los Angeles to take on the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday. If there is any non-conference team you can consider one of Gonzaga’s nemeses, it is Arizona.
Last time around, like seemingly all the time, the Zags lost to Arizona. Last time around, it was a precursor to bigger troubles. At the time it didn’t seem that way, however. The Zags established a big lead on the Wildcats and they eventually piddled it away into a loss. With the win, Gonzaga would have had the marquee win they so desired. Without it, well, that is how the season transpired.
For the first time in a long while, however, Gonzaga has a good chance to win this game. Unfortunately, that good chance to win this game is coming at the cost of the overall health of the Wildcats, who are down a few players. But if that means the Zags can secure another victory over a top team, pretty sure most of Spokane will take it.
Meet the opponent
Arizona Wildcats, 5-1, KenPom #24
The thing about Arizona, is even when they are injured, they still are one of the better teams in the nation. The Wildcats were already without Allonzo Trier, who has been suspended for the season without much of a word from the coaching staff. They also just took another huge hit with Parker Jackson-Cartwright going down with a high ankle sprain. Senior guard Kadeem Allen will most likely take over at point, but he is a far cry from Jackson-Cartwright.
Amongst all of that, the Wildcats still have freshman Finnish forward Lauri Markkanen, who is one of the best big men in the entire nation. Markkanen is averaging 18.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. He will punish you from all parts of the court, especially if you send him to the line where he hits 89.2 percent of his gimmes. Markkanen is going to punish the Zags, and the battle down low will be the premier show of the afternoon.
Alongside Markkanen is junior center Dusan Ristic. He is important to mention mainly because he is 7’0 tall, which means that the two post players for the Wildcats at the start of the game are both 7’0 tall. Mark Few will have to have some creative defensive sets and Johnathan Williams will have to play aggressive defense to keep the points in the paint at a manageable level.
The other two major scorers for the Wildcats are freshmen guards Kobi Simmons and Rawle Atkins. Simmons is having himself a fine year, and Atkins is chipping in as well, although turnovers limit his productivity.
What to watch out for
The Zags need to set the tempo on this game.
Now that Jackson-Cartwright is out, the Arizona Wildcats will be starting three freshmen and have just two scholarship players on available on the bench. I have sympathy for the Wildcats fans (hello Gonzaga from last season). But this is a completely winnable game if the Zags stick to their plan and force Arizona out of their comfort zone.
This will be a bit easier said than done of course, but Allen is a weak point in this offense at the moment. This will be his first game running the point, and although he did it at times last season, his assist to turnover ratio is the equivalent of Kevin Pangos to Josh Perkins. Zag fans understand this pain.
The battle down low will be the game to watch.
Last time the Zags faced off against the “best European big man in the nation” Domantas Sabonis emerged the clear winner. Not sure things will be the same with Przemek Karnowski and Markkanen, but watching those two battle it out down low is going to be a game within the game. Both players are as fundamentally sound as you can get, and although Markkanen comes in ranking much higher on NBA draft boards because of upside, Karnowski is the smarter player right now. There is a good chance that Karnowski establishes himself as the premier big man on the west coast in this game.
This is finally the time to put it all together.
Arizona might have started the season ranked a bit too high, but they are still a good team. So far this season, Gonzaga has shown that it can compete with good teams and win. Unfortunately, it has shown it can only do that one half at a time. This is the best remaining test on the schedule for the Zags to establish they can play 40 minutes of basketball on the national stage. This will be a truly neutral court, because although Arizona fans travel well, the Zags are everywhere.