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2017 NCAA Tournament: 10 Observations from the game that sent Gonzaga to the Final Four

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36-1. Four down, two to go.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Gonzaga vs Xavier Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

That really happened, folks. The Zags punched their ticket to the Final Four, and are 80 minutes away from winning a national championship. Here’s how they got to this point.

  1. As they have done all tournament, the Musketeers were effective at winning off the dribble to get into the paint during the first half. Gonzaga was willing to switch on defensive matchups to reduce the driving lanes available, but Xavier’s guards were still able to get into the seams. However, the Zags adjusted by sending more helpers on drivers and tightening up the on-ball pressure in the second half, and Xavier’s effectiveness dramatically fell off.
  2. In Xavier’s three previous tournament games, it shot 6-16 (v. Arizona), 11-17 (v. Florida State), and 9-23 (v. Maryland) from the three-point line. Against Gonzaga, the Musketeers were held to 2-16 from long distance. With a significant size disadvantage in the paint, the lack of 3s doomed Xavier.
  3. I don’t blame Chris Mack for going with the 1-3-1 zone in the first half to clog the paint. Xavier had to make a choice in what it would concede to Gonzaga, and the zone gave the Zags enough space on the perimeter to get off clean looks. Considering how poorly Gonzaga had been shooting the ball from the three-point line for the last few games, it’s not surprising Chris Mack rolled the dice and dared Gonzaga to hit jump shots. Fortunately, the Zags recaptured their collective shooting strokes in time and took advantage. Once Gonzaga found a rhythm on the perimeter, Xavier had to extend out to the line and contest which allowed the bigs to play straight up on the inside. At that point the game was over.
  4. Xavier looked to push the pace every chance it got in order to mitigate Gonzaga’s size, but this played right into Gonzaga’s hands. The Zags are at their best in an uptempo game, and are much more comfortable on offense in a wide-open game (they are 36th in the country in average offensive possession length). Considering how limited offensive opportunities were against West Virginia, the style of play in the Elite 8 must have felt like cold water on a hot summer’s day.
  5. When Josh Perkins is scoring points like he did in the first half when he went 3-4 from the arc, the Gonzaga offense becomes just about unguardable. There are few teams in the country that can play the Zags straight up from positions 1-5 and expect to win the majority of those battles.
  6. Sean O’Mara and RaShid Gaston are Xavier’s only “bigs,” and they simply were overmatched against Gonzaga’s frontcourt. Neither was able to guard Gonzaga’s frontcourt on his own, and neither was able to score on them while on offense. This put a disproportionate burden on the Xavier guards to have big games, which is a big ask against Gonzaga’s defense.
  7. Xavier could not afford for Trevon Bluiett to be missing in action against the Zags, but that’s exactly what he was in the second half. Bluiett failed to record a single point in the final 20 minutes and had 4 turnovers. He finished with 10 points (3-14 FG) after scoring 25, 29, and 21 points in Xavier’s previous three tournament games. Great job by Gonzaga’s defense to shut him down.
  8. Johnathan Williams III had a tremendous weekend in San Jose. 13 points against West Virginia, which is like scoring 25 points in a normal game. Then he followed that up with a stellar effort against Xavier finishing with a complete line of 19 points (8-12), 8 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 steals. If there is one thing you could nitpick about Williams performance, it was at the free throw line where he shot a combined 6-15 over the weekend. But considering how much he provides on both ends of the floor, we can overlook the free throw shooting.
  9. Great job by Xavier to make it to the Elite 8 despite losing their best player in Edmond Sumner to an ACL injury in February. The Musketeers will have to keep waiting for their first Final Four berth, and now take the mantle of most tournament wins (27) without advancing to the last weekend. I have no doubt they’ll get there someday.
  10. We’re in the Final Four, might as well win this thing.