All the way until January 24, this game was looming like an elephant that kept growing in size, because on the morning of Jan. 24, the Mustangs were the lone undefeated team in college basketball. Not anymore, and since then, really not anymore. SMU has lost three of its last five games, most recently dropping a game at home to Tulsa.
SMU won't be heading to the NCAA Tournament because of self-punishment, but on any other year, this team would at a good seed. Even though SMU has taken a couple lumps in the past couple of weeks, this is still a very good team and a great opportunity for Gonzaga to pick up that "signature" win the Bulldogs so desperately need.
Meet the opponent
SMU Mustangs, 20-3, KenPom #23
When you talk the Mustangs you need to talk its offense. SMU's offense is ranked No. 5 in the nation by Ken Pomeroy's metrics, and a lot of that has to do with two things they do almost better than everyone else: 1) shoot the ball; 2) offensive rebounds. SMU has the ninth highest eFG% in the nation and the second-highest OR% in the nation.
This will be a change of pace for the Bulldogs, because unlike a lot of other WCC teams, SMU is smart when it shoots the ball. The Mustangs have taken just 1,330 field goal attempts, good for No. 246 in the nation, but they are No. 4 in overall field goal percentage. They have attempted just 373 three pointers, but they are shooting 42.4 percent as a team from there, good for No. 3 in the nation.
The Mustangs are led by Nic Moore and Ben Moore. Nic is a senior guard averaging 16.3 points per game and Ben is a junior forward averaging 12 per game. Toss in Jordan Tolbert's 12 points and Shake Milton's 11.2 points per game, and this is a balanced offensive squad with a lot of weapons. Larry Brown runs a tight ship, especially after losing Keith Frazier
to injury to transfer, and only seven players see meaningful minutes.
Larry Brown likes to slow the pace down with this team and play solid half court sets. The Zags need to maintain their focus on defense, because SMU doesn't mess up too often on the offensive end. Perhaps the only knock against them is that the team is also prone to turnovers, averaging 12 per game, just a few decimal points more than Gonzaga.
What to watch out for
Gonzaga has to play 40 minutes of solid team defense.
SMU does have some turnover problems, but it won't be much of an issue against the Gonzaga defense. The Gonzaga defense doesn't force opponents into a lot of turnovers, which is rather interesting because it is still a pretty good defense. Rather, the Zags rely on forcing up bad shots--and that is something SMU doesn't do too often.
I wouldn't expect the turnover mentality to change, but if Gonzaga can make every shot as difficult as possible for SMU, the Zags have a good chance to win this game. Gonzaga holds opponents to an eFG% of 43.7 percent (No. 11 in the nation), and holds opponents OR% to 24.8 percent (No. 17 in the nation). Basically, something has got to give here.
Domantas Sabonis has to be on his A+++++ game.
Domantas Sabonis is one of the most important players in this game because of his rebounding prowess. SMU does such a great job at offense because they do such a great job at getting second chance points. Sabonis rebounds on the defensive glass like his life depends on it, securing 28.9 percent of defensive rebounds, good for No. 11 in the nation.
He also will be matched up against Markus Kennedy for much of the game, and Kennedy is a solid post defender, averaging 2.3 blocks per game. After a relatively quiet stretch (by Sabonis' absurd standards), he had two great efforts last week in California. Gonzaga will need every big of energy the big man can muster.
Don't look at the scoreboard.
The thing with SMU is that their offense is good enough to punish you for every mistake and jump out to a solid lead. The other thing about SMU is that their defense is mediocre at best. If Gonzaga finds itself in a double-digit hole, or a hole of any point value, they need to just focus on that possession and find the easy basket--because there is a good chance that SMU will make it easier. Neither Nic Moore or Shake Milton are particularly good defenders, which means that we might see some good games from Eric McClellan and Josh Perkins.
Overall, this is as much of a must-win game as Gonzaga has had the entire time on its schedule, for the Zags purposes of getting into the NCAA Tournament. At the same time, another loss, although it would be stupid and horrible, will hardly spell the doom of the bubble for Gonzaga. The Zags have everything to win from this game and need to take advantage of the opportunity.