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NCAA Tournament 2018: Gonzaga vs. UNC Greensboro preview

The Zags first opponent hasn’t made the tournament since 2001.

NCAA Basketball: NC-Greensboro at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Gonzaga Bulldogs are in the NCAA Tournament for the 20th consecutive year. Their opponent in the first round, UNC Greensboro, hasn’t been in the NCAA Tournament for almost 20 years (17 to be exact).

Both teams are winners of their respective conference tournaments, and the UNC Greensboro Spartans are having a year for the ages. They’ve set a school record for wins (27), much of that the product of one of the best defenses in school history.

Unfortunately, for all of that, the No. 13 seeded Spartans are drawing the No. 4 seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs. Gonzaga, as most people either are writing about or have written about, is one of the more underseeded teams in the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans didn’t draw a normal four seed, they drew a team much better than that.

Meet the opponent

UNC Greensboro Spartans, 27-7, KenPom #83

There are three big pointers to make about UNC Greensboro. First up, in the same way that Gonzaga isn’t your average No. 4 seed, the Spartans are not your average No. 13 seed—specifically in the realm of defense. UNC Greensboro has a top of the line defense, ranked 30th in the country by Ken Pomeroy. The Zags have not faced a defense this good since San Diego State, and by all accounts it will be the perfect introduction to the quality of opponents Gonzaga will face from here on out.

The Spartans are aggressive and force turnovers on nearly 20 percent of possessions. They attack the defensive glass aggressively, and they have one of the best rim protectors few have heard of in college basketball in 6’10 sophomore James Dickey. Dickey averages 8.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game. He has 69 blocks on the season. For reference, the Zags leading shot blocker Johnathan Williams has 40.

Much of the offensive firepower flows through Spanish guard Francis Alonso. Alonso leads the Spartans with 15.6 points per game, and a majority of that damage comes from long range. He averages nearly eight three point attempts per game, which per 40 minutes comes out to 10.8 per game. For another reference, the Zags leading sharpshooter Josh Perkins averages 7.1 three point attempts per 40 minutes.

Throw in the role players of 6’6 senior forward Marvin Smith, who Mid Major Madness says is UNC’s best on ball defender, and freshman dunktastic guard Isaiah Miller, and Gonzaga is facing a good team. It is hard to expect anything less than that now. We’re at the NCAA Tournament after all.

What to watch out for

The rust effect for both teams.

UNC Greensboro last played on March 5, and Gonzaga last played on March 6. Don’t be surprised if both teams take a hot second to warm up, especially considering that both squads have defenses that make life difficult. Gonzaga will be the home crowd, however, since they are playing within close proximity of Boise. Hopefully, the rust is shaken off sooner than later in this game.

Control the glass.

Both Gonzaga and UNC Greensboro are great rebounding teams, on the offensive and defensive end. Dickey is a phenomenal defensive rebounder, with a DR% of 25.2. Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams is no slouch himself, holding a DR% of 22.1. It will be important for Gonzaga to keep UNC Greensboro from getting an extra possession, because Alonso is liable to immediately fire that in for a three.

Remember how to grind HARD.

One of the things we like to forget during conference play this year is Gonzaga won a lot of games where the WCC opponents, such as San Diego or Pacific, played a style of game that hardly resembled basketball. UNC Greensboro is another one of those teams. The Spartans play a slow tempo, ranked No. 314 in the country. Just add that into the mix of a team that plays hard on defense, forces turnovers, and rebounds well, and what we have here is another straight up dogfight. Gonzaga has shown the toughness and mettle to win those sorts of games this season, and there is nothing to suggest they will have a problem this time around. There are plenty of things to suggest that Gonzaga is going to get a tough as nails test in the first round from UNC Greensboro.