Gonzaga has been here before. In the school’s third appearance in the Elite Eight, the Zags are just 40 minutes away from reaching the Final Four, what has become a barometer of success for college basketball programs.
After a grueling defensive slugging match between West Virginia, the Bulldogs face the Cinderellas of Xavier Musketeers, who have rallied together after dismissals, injuries and a forgettable month of basketball. Two Jesuit schools are vying for their first trip to the Final Four. This is the first time since 1999 (Florida vs. your very on Gonzaga Bulldogs) that two teams in the Elite Eight are facing off to make their first semifinals appearance.
Meet our opponent
Xavier Musketeers 24-13 (9-9), KenPom 30
If you are surprised to see the Xavier Musketeers on the bracket line underneath Gonzaga you’re not alone. The 11 seeded Big East team had a gladiatorial road to Saturday’s game. The Musketeers are the first double digit seed to defeat three teams seeded sixth or higher. Before facing the one seed Zags, the Musketeers knocked off the two (Arizona) and the three (Florida State).
It is a marathon story that looked damn near impossible back at the end of February. Xavier’s leader and point guard Edmond Sumner went down with a season ending ACL injury. The injury only compounded the earlier loss of point guard Myles Davis, who was dismissed from the team after his suspension. Then their leading scorer Trevon Bluiett suffered a severe ankle sprain. All of a sudden, a depleted Xavier team rattled off six straight losses from February 11 to the beginning of March.
Coach Chris Mack had his team respond to the dire run by literally burning the calendar, having the ashes of February’s page placed in a jar that travels with the team. And the team hasn’t looked back. After a tough three point loss to Creighton in the Big East tournament, Xavier has looked every part of a solid tournament team.
The now healthy Bluiett is the center piece of the Musketeer offense, averaging 25 points in his three games in the dance. The 6-6 stretch-four guard had 18 points in the first half against Arizona and was a driving force in keeping his team in the game. Bluiett loves taking outside shots and has gone 11-23 (47.8 percent) so far in the tournament behind the arc.
One of Xavier’s great strengths is their ability to rebound. Arizona got the better of them on Thursday, but Xavier is a dominant rebounding team. The undersized lineup out rebounded the Goliath-sized Florida State Seminoles in the Round of 32. They led the Big East in rebounding margin (+7). The blueprint for Xavier is second chance points and stacking up threes, with Malcolm Bernard, JP Macura and Kaiser Gates joining Bluiett from deep.
Xavier’s rotation of will be an interesting component as well. The Musketeers rely mostly on seven guys, and a predominantly undersized lineup. In classic Big East fashion, Xavier relies on big guards and smaller forwards. Tyrique Jones has been the lone true forward to start in the tournament, and he’s listed as 6-feet-9-inches and 237 pounds. Xavier may start 6-feet-10-inches Sean O’Mara to try and resolve the size discrepancy when facing a team like Gonzaga.
What to watch out for
As it turned out on Thursday, a team was absolutely overwhelmed by a defensive effort by their opponent. It just turned out to be the opposite of what most prognosticators imagined. Gonzaga will need a team effort again on defense if they want to withstand the pesky Musketeers offensive assault. Perimeter defense will be at a premium, and figuring out a way to minimize the damage of Bluiett will be key for a Gonzaga victory. It will be exciting to see what this top notch defense can do to a hot upstart opponent in the biggest game yet.
Offense will need to click
It’s hard to be surprised with the offensive outing against a crazy defense like West Virginia. You gotta play ugly to beat ugly. But against a zone team like Xavier, Gonzaga will be dared to make outside shots, something that has not really been the team’s forte. Much of Xavier’s strategy against Arizona was to pack the zone in to ensure that Markkanen didn’t get the ball. It worked. For Gonzaga to run their offense and get their bigs involved, they will have to answer from outside. Xavier averaged giving up 7.5 threes a game this season.
How will NWG respond?
It’s no secret that Nigel Williams-Goss is having a tough tournament. Shooting 28.6 percent from the field and a 1.11 assist to turnover ratio is not what he was looking for in the dance. Williams-Goss will be crucial in dealing with the zone and taking advantage of a pretty beatable Xavier defense.
Matchups, matchups, matchups
Who in the hell on Xavier guards Karnowski outside of O’Mara? How will the backcourt respond to guarding some of the biggest guards they’ve played against yet? Xavier guards are all 6-feet-4-inches or taller. Johnathan Williams will once again be a huge boon, and don’t be surprised if Zach Collins becomes the X-factor in the matchup game.
Time: 3:09 PM PT
TV: TBS (Brian Anderson, Chris Webber with Lewis Johnson)
Radio: Gonzaga IMG Radio Network (Tom Hudson and Matt Santangelo)
Online: March Madness Live