This type of matchup belongs in an alternate universe. A number one seed is standing in front of a Cinderella story and media darling that is just happy to be in the tournament. But in this narrative the Cinderella is a power conference school and the big bad blue blood is the original glass slipper owner.
Gonzaga may have to play the role of the villain, as Salt Lake’s first session was filled with purple and thick prescription lenses. The likes of Rachel Nichols, Michael Wilbon and other familiar faces in sports journalism are unabashedly hyped for the Wildcats. The gleefully self-described Nerdwestern faithful are living loose AND IT MAKES ME SICK. If I were the Zags I’d do something about it. I would get up and redeem myself in the eyes of my father, my maker and my coach. I’d get those nerds.
Meet our opponent
Northwestern Wildcats 24-11 (10-8), KenPom 38
Northwestern is not known for lighting up the nylon. The Wildcats shoot 43.6 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from behind the arc. In fact, Northwestern has made one more three this season than Gonzaga but on 78 more attempts. Northwestern scored less than 60 points three times in conference play and averaged 67.5 in the Big 10 season (12th out of 14).
But Northwestern brings a reliable defensive effort whenever they play. Northwestern has held opponents to 40.3 percent on field goals (20th in the country) which is good enough to keep you in any game. The Wildcats pride themselves on clogging up lanes and contesting the perimeter.
NU’s defense doesn’t result in a lot of turnovers, averaging just 11.9 per game, but they take care of the basketball on offense with a +1.4 turnover margin (Gonzaga’s is 1.2). Northwestern will try and slow the tempo of the game down in classic Big 10 fashion, ranking in at 301st in adjusted tempo by KenPom.
The Wildcats normally rely heavily on their backcourt of juniors Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey. McIntosh lit up the Commodores of Vanderbilt on Thursday, shooting well above his season average from the field (62.5 percent to 39.8 percent) and from three (60 percent to 29.7 percent).
Lindsey is normally the focal point of the team’s offense, and was the clear first option up until he battled mononucleosis in the second half of the season. Three of Northwestern’s losses were without Lindsey in the the beginning of February and Lindsey hadn’t looked 100 percent until the beginning of the Big 10 tournament.
Northwestern’s interior is ultimately not too intimidating. Sophomore Vic Law is an interesting stretch wing that should give Gonzaga’s three guard lineup matchup concerns. At 39.6% from three, Law is Northwestern’s biggest outside threat but has been streaky (he went 0-3 on Thursday). Sanjay Lumpkin and Dererk Pardon will do their best on the glass to get second chance points.
Northwestern’s magic number is 70. The team is undefeated if they score 70 points or more this season.
What to watch out for
How will Northwestern guard the Zags?
Thursday’s win over South Dakota State was not all too pretty for Gonzaga. They wound up shooting 39.7 percent from the field, their worst shooting performance since their 39.4 percent shooting against San Diego State. The Jackrabbits slouched off of the perimeter for most of the game, primarily because of their clear disadvantage in the post and against penetrating drives. But Gonzaga’s shooting outside did little to punish this slack strategy.
It’s unlikely that Gonzaga replicates that performance but it’s clear that the guards will have to prove their formidability or else the Zags will be looking at another subaverage points total. Facing an actually stifling defense, Gonzaga will need to look for the extra pass rather than take the first open look available.
Another chance for Williams-Goss and Karnowski
It’s clear that Nigel Williams-Goss did not leave Washington to have that kind of performance in the tournament. The reliable, charismatic special leader for this special team did not envision having his quietest performance in his first NCAA tournament appearance. Williams-Goss was clearly thrown off by the prevent defense that South Dakota State threw out there and he’ll likely try and amend for his frustrated outing.
Likewise, Przemek Karnowski could not have been too happy with his output in the Round of 64. While hitting near his average shooting, Karnowski struggled responding to the swarming collapse defense of the Jackrabbits in the first half. And honestly, Karnowski looked out of place in the game, as the burley three hundred pounder was forced to close out perimeter shooters and roaming outside of the key. Karnowski only played 17 minutes, as Zach Collins was a better fit to guard the stretch bigs of South Dakota State.
Both Williams-Goss and Karnowski have been the guys that Few and the team has leaned on throughout the season. Saturday should be no different in a far more comfortable match up of styles.
Zags need to loosen up
It hurt watching Gonzaga try and respond to the “dare you” defense that South Dakota State was presenting in the first half. Seeing Johnathan Williams and Josh Perkins reposition themselves with nobody around them looked like someone choking too far up the bat with two strikes.
The Zags were complacent and unwilling to challenge the game style and tempo presented to them the first 20 minutes. That cannot happen against Northwestern. If you thought South Dakota State packs the paint on defense, wait until you watch Wildcat basketball. Gonzaga will need to play loose like they did the final 20-30 minutes of Thursday’s game if they want to make a dent in that Northwestern defense. And if the Zags play tight, expect the strong purple following to get loud, and the neutral fans to join in on rooting for the nerds from Chicago. Tempo and confidence will be key on Saturday.
Time: 2:15 PM PT
TV: CBS (Andrew Catalon, Steve Lappas, Jamie Erdahl)
Radio: Gonzaga IMG Radio Network (Tom Hudson and Matt Santangelo)
Online: March Madness Live