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Gonzaga vs. North Carolina game preview: Zags head into the lion’s den

The biggest game of the year is finally here.

Jerry Colangelo Classic Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The No. 4 Gonzaga Bulldogs are trekking across the country into the heart of blue blood territory as they take on the No. 12 North Carolina Tar Heels, in the Dean Smith Center, for the premier college basketball game of the weekend.

The Zags are coming off of a disappointing loss against the now No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers, 76-73. Rui Hachimura led the Zags with 21 points, but also played a hand in some poor defense that resulted in the game winning shot by Admiral Schofield.

North Carolina, after getting absolutely annihilated by Michigan at the end of November, rebounded with a simple 22-point win over UNC Wilmington on Dec. 5. Things have been a bit quiet in Chapel Hill in December. Tomorrow’s game marks just the second game this month North Carolina has played, as opposed to the Zags’ fourth.

Meet the opponent

North Carolina Tar Heels, 7-2, KenPom #7

The Tar Heels have some dudes you have no doubt heard of, and this squad likes to score points. Senior forward Luke Maye was a preseason AP All-American, and is averaging 13.7 points and 9.3 rebounds. Nassir Little was the second-ranked member of the class of 2018. Roy Williams is bringing him around slowly, and he is still averaging 12 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Senior Cameron Johnson and freshman Coby White are both lights out shooters from deep, and average over 15 points per game.

Combined, the Zags are looking at the No. 4 ranked offense by Ken Pomeroy, the ninth-fastest playing team in the nation, and the fifth-highest scoring team in the nation. For Gonzaga, a squad that is coming off of two shaky defensive efforts, playing North Carolina on the road is not exactly what the doctor ordered.

The Tar Heels are not going to burn the Zags from outside, although they have the shooters capable of causing headaches. North Carolina ranks No. 291 in the nation in point distribution from three, scoring only 25.7 percent of their total points from long range. This is a squad that enjoys to bury opponents with jumpers and crafty maneuvers down low.

What to watch out for

Gonzaga has to control the defensive glass.

This might be too tall of an order to ask. North Carolina is a top-10 offensive rebounding team, and they are too good offensively to be given multiple second-chance points. The Volunteers out-hustled the Zags on the glass, grabbing 16 offensive rebounds—and Tennessee is good, but not nearly great team, in that facet. Another similar effort to Sunday, and North Carolina runs away with this game too easily. The Zags have to do a better job defending.

The backcourt needs to provide some offense.

Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke were phenomenal on offense against Tennessee, combining for 42 points. Corey Kispert, Zach Norvell, and Josh Perkins combined for 26 points. Perkins, in particular, scored zero points. Although his nine assists were nice, the Zags are going to need every ounce of offense available to win this battle. Often times against Tennessee, and against Washington, the backcourt has looked a bit flummoxed and stressed. The Zags can shoot the hell out of the ball, and that needs to be established early in this game.

Slow down the pace of the game in any way possible.

Roy Williams can run his team deep if he needs to, and the Tar Heels would love for this game to be in the hundreds. North Carolina holds onto the ball per possession the second-shortest amount in college. Gonzaga, with injuries to Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall already straining the depth, can’t win this sprint. The Zags have had the whole week off, but so have the Tar Heels. That plus is a complete wash at this point. Gonzaga is a ridiculously dangerous team in transition, but if the Zags try to run the pace the Tar Heels set over 40 minutes, they are going to come up short.

Enjoy this game, because it will be entertaining as all get out.

Gonzaga is ranked as the No. 1 offense in the nation, North Carolina the No. 4. The last time these two teams met, it was a nasty, physical, defensive grind-out plagued by this incessant chirping noise coming from the entire officiating staff. This game, at least on the offense part, will be wildly different, and hopefully, as long as the officials let them play, a lot of fun to watch. Gonzaga is playing at North Carolina, which already is a huge deal in itself. These two teams match up perfectly with each other, so picking a winner is like rolling a dice and saying, “I told you so,” after the fact.