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Gonzaga vs. Villanova game preview: Off to the big show at Madison Square Garden

The biggest game on the schedule is here.

NCAA Basketball: Incarnate Word at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The Gonzaga Bulldogs are off to the bright lights of New York City to take on the Villanova Wildcats at Madison Square Garden. The game is part of the Jimmy V Classic.

The Zags are coming off an impressive win over the Creighton Bluejays at home on Friday. Gonzaga overcame a somewhat slow start to blow the Bluejays out of the water during the second half. Silas Melson had his best game of the season, and perhaps his career, leading the Zags with 21 points. Zach Norvell, starting in place of an injured Corey Kispert, also chipped in 21 as well.

Villanova just finished an absolute pasting of Saint Joseph’s on Saturday night. Nova has already played a couple of good teams in Northern Iowa and Tennessee, but the Gonzaga contest on Tuesday will be the hardest so far this season. As much of a test as this game will be for the Zags, it will be an equal test for Villanova.

Meet the opponent

Villanova Wildcats, 8-0, KenPom #1

So, um, where to start. The Wildcats, arguably, are one of the best teams in the nation. Ken Pomeroy’s rankings at the beginning of the season take a little bit of last year, but the Wildcats are still a well-oiled machine. Despite losing Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins from last season, Villanova hasn’t skipped a beat. Sophomore Mikal Bridges is a nightmare matchup. Standing at 6’7, he does every single thing in the game better than most everyone else. Bridges, alongside senior Jalen Brunson, lead Villanova with 17.9 points per game.

Villanova likes to play the game deliberately—like, real deliberately. Their tempo is ranked No. 272 by Ken Pomeroy, and we are going to see some real half court offense here. Nova plays it smart. They shoot the ball well, they rarely turn it over, and they fill their squad with good shooters. This will be the hardest test the Gonzaga defense has seen so far. Unlike Florida, which was all about the threes, and Creighton, which was all about the twos, Villanova will force the Zags to feverishly guard both.

What to watch out for

If Corey Kispert sits again, Zach Norvell needs to be ready to go.

So far, Rui Hachimura has shown an ability to excel when the tempo speeds up. That will not be the case against Villanova. If Corey Kispert is limited at all because of his tweaked ankle, Norvell is going to have to answer the call. Against Creighton, he did that. Norvell started slow, but he didn’t missing some open shots stop him from shooting. He scored 21 points while going 4-of-10 from three point range.

Zags are going to need a big (and specifically careful) game from Johnathan Williams.

After a superhero performance from Williams against Florida where he scored 39 points, the Gonzaga senior has come back down to Earth. We’ll ignore the Incarnate Word game, where Williams and the rest of the starters didn’t play very much. Williams scored a total of 25 points against Texas and Creighton. The biggest concern is the total of 10 turnovers in the two games. The Zags need everyone on their best game tomorrow, and that means Williams can’t cough up the ball as often as he has lately.

Don’t be scared by the bright lights and the big crowds.

There isn’t a bigger stage in basketball than Madison Square Garden. The Zags have been here before, to varying degrees of success. This will also be the most road-like environment Gonzaga has played in all season. Zag Nation travels quite well, but the distance from Spokane to New York City vs. Philadelphia to New York City is nothing to scoff at. The PK80 Invitational was essentially a home game for Gonzaga, so this will be the first time we can see how this team functions under the pressures of a somewhat hostile crowd.