The fourth-ranked Arizona Wildcats and the fifth-ranked UCLA Bruins are set to square off Saturday evening in Tucson.
Due to the magnitude of the game — it is the first matchup between two top-five Pac-12 schools since the 2007-08 season — Arizona is hosting the renowned ESPN show College GameDay.
If you are not familiar with the Pac-12 this season, it is a very top-heavy conference. There’s Arizona, there’s Oregon, there’s UCLA, and then there is everybody else.
Surrounding those three teams is a constant debate about which of them is the best and which of them has the best shot of making the Final Four.
But if you are looking to find the best team in the West, you may have to look outside the conference — the Gonzaga Bulldogs might be better than all of them.
At least ESPN analyst Jay Bilas thinks so.
“I think Gonzaga is just as good as any team in the Pac-12,” he told Tucson media members on Friday in preparation for College GameDay. “I really believe that.”
The Bulldogs are a perennial powerhouse on the West Coast, winning 23 games or more every year beginning in the 1997-98 season.
Yet, since the Zags have yet to reach the Final Four, it has opened the door to continual skepticism about just how good they actually are.
Gonzaga has come close to reaching the Final Four recently — the 35-win, 2014-15 team reached the Elite Eight — but it has not been able to get over the hump.
Bilas thinks this year’s team has the best chance to do it.
“Gonzaga is the best they’ve been in a long time,” he said. “They’ve been really good and they’re so good defensively and that gets lost a little bit. They’re an elite defensive team because they have multiple shot-blockers and guys that can guard multiple positions. And they have more major conference players than they’ve ever had.
“Nigel Williams-Goss went to Washington, transferred in. He was a McDonald’s All-American. They got Jordan Matthews to transfer in from Cal, so he’s played four years of high level basketball in a great conference. Johnathan Williams transfers in from Missouri, so he played SEC basketball.
“So you’ve got guys who can really play that are experienced and then they’ve got size.”
Bilas called Gonzaga big man Przemek Karnowski the “best passing big guy I can remember in college.”
“You have to double him,” he said, “and if you double him he can hurt you and then they bring two really bouncy athletic shot-blockers off the bench in Zach Collins and Killian Tillie.
“So they’re different than they’ve been. They have not had this before. They’ve had scoring teams, but they haven’t had guards with this kind of size and defensive ability. And they have not had that balance between the perimeter and the post but they have four legit perimeter players and four legit post guys.”
Bilas’ biggest concern with the Zags is their lack of competition. Not necessarily the strength of their schedule, but more so the fact Gonzaga has not played in a close game since non-conference play.
“I do think it’s fair to ask when you haven’t had a close game in so long, when you are in a close game, how are you going to react?” he said. “I think that’s a fair question. I think Gonzaga will do just fine, but ... having a couple close games and then winning them would be really helpful for them. Because teams that operate in close games all the time, you know they’ve got that edge where it’s not going to feel foreign to them. It’s been a while for Gonzaga. When they’re in a nail-biter down the stretch, it’s been a while. And that doesn’t mean they can’t win. They can. Absolutely.
“This is a Final Four-caliber team.”
That said, Bilas thinks the team out west most likely to win the National Championship is Oregon, not Gonzaga.
One of Bilas’ colleagues on College GameDay, former Duke Blue Devil Jay Williams, chimed in with his opinion of the Zags.
He does not have any doubt that Gonzaga will secure the No. 1 seed in the West, but, like Bilas, he is concerned that the Bulldogs have been untested for “the past two and a half months.”
“I’m not knocking Gonzaga, I think they’re a heck of a basketball team,” Williams said. “They belong in the upper echelon of basketball. I also don’t think they’ve been challenged for the past two and a half months and that can make a difference when you go into the NCAA Tournament.
“So if I’m one of these three (Pac-12) teams in contention for a No. 2 seed in the West, I want that two-seed. I want to play in my backyard. It makes a difference than going to Missouri or Tennessee or going all the way to New York City.”
Ryan writes for SB Nation’s excellent Arizona Wildcat’s blog AZ Desert Swarm. He was ever so kind to take notes about what the College Gameday crew said to media members and wrote this article for us. Huge thanks Ryan. You can follow him on Twitter here.