On Sunday, the No. 9 Gonzaga Bulldogs hop on the Greyhound for a trek across the state to face the No. 22 Washington Huskies. Last year, the contest between the in-state rivals ended in as thrilling fashion as possible with a buzzer-beater by Rui Hachimura. One year later, both the rosters of the Bulldogs and the Huskies don’t look much like they did 12 months ago. We spoke with Max Vrooman from UW Dawg Pound to learn a little bit more about the Huskies.
TSSF: UW, like GU, lost quite a bit from last year. Everyone has heard of Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart. Who are a couple of other names that Gonzaga fans need to pay attention to?
Nahziah (Naz) Carter went scoreless against Gonzaga last year but the junior from Rochester, New York has had the breakout season everyone expected for him averaging 14.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. He’s one of the best dunkers in the country but has really improved his 3-pt shot and is making 48% on about 3 attempts per game after coming into the year as a career 35% 3-pt shooter. The other most likely impact player is PG Quade Green. The former 5-star sharpshooter transferred out from Kentucky after getting passed over by a couple of other 5-star PGs. He started off the season a little slow and didn’t start for the first time in UW’s last game but responded to the benching well for his best game of the season with 20 points and 8 assists. If that’s the version of Quade that the Huskies get on Sunday then UW fans will feel a lot better about this game.
TSSF: UW has that gutty win over Baylor to open the season, the loss to Tennessee, and then a bunch of wins over some middle of the road competition. Does the fan base have a solid understanding of where this team stands? Or does there need to be a few more games against better competition to truly know?
The Huskies rank 329th in experience per KenPom and 313th in minutes continuity so I think fans were expecting an inconsistent start and that’s what they’ve gotten. Washington goes through 5 minute spurts every game where they look unstoppable but also stretches where they travel on every other possession and miscommunications on defense lead to wide open 3’s. I think we’ve seen enough to know the ceiling and floor of this team and right now every game feels about a 50/50 split. What remains to be seen is whether the young talent will become increasingly consistent as the year progresses and if they can play up to their talent level for say 75% of the game. If that happens then this team is a Pac-12 title and Final Four contender. If not then they should still make the NCAA tournament but as closer to the #9 seed that they were last year.
TSSF: Let’s focus on that Tennessee loss, since it is the only one. What went wrong for UW in that game?
The zone defense that UW primarily runs has some obvious holes. Washington generally gives teams a relatively open look at the free throw line jumper with the expectation that teams don’t practice that shot very often and in a live game situation will shoot closer to 40% and 0.7 points per possession is acceptable. Tennessee shot 6/8 in the midrange in the 1st half and hit their first two 3-pointers to bury the Huskies early and they never really recovered. On the other end the young Huskies didn’t handle the early deficit well and forced some shots which led to 28% shooting from 3-point range and 17 turnovers. The defense stiffened up a little in second half but the offense didn’t perform well enough to make up the difference especially as Tennessee made nearly all their free throws down the stretch.
TSSF: UW has some serious length and athleticism. In what ways or what players do you think will be a particularly difficult matchup for Gonzaga?
Washington’s zone defense generally makes it tough to score around the rim but swapping out Noah Dickerson for Isaiah Stewart and his 7’4 wingspan has made it extremely difficult for teams to convert in the paint. Per Synergy Sports the Husky defense is allowing opponents to shoot just 40.8% in the paint while Gonzaga is making 58.9% on offense. Filip Petrusev struggled from the floor against Michigan and if the Huskies can keep him to closer to 40% from the field instead of the nearly 60%+ he shoots against mid-majors then it will be advantage Washington. For the most part Gonzaga can match Washington’s height but the one spot that looks to be a mismatch is Naz Carter’s and Jaden McDaniels’ athleticism going against Corey Kispert. I wouldn’t be surprised if UW tries to get either player to take him off the dribble when both are adept at pulling up and hitting the midrange shot.
TSSF: Score prediction time!
If we were to get a rematch of this game in the NCAA tournament then it’s possible that we’d see enough improvement from the Huskies to make me confident enough to pick them. Washington almost pulled off the upset in Spokane last year against by all accounts what was a superior Gonzaga lineup to this one but that in hindsight was probably the best game they played all season. I’m not sure I trust Washington’s young players to handle the pressure well enough to emerge with a win. I know Gonzaga fans will be trying to buy up every ticket available on the secondary market and if Washington stumbles early then the home court advantage disappears with it. The wild card will be the injury situation and if Woolridge and Gilder are severely limited then I mostly trust the Huskies to shut down the Gonzaga bigs. Zags pull away in the final 5 minutes after a game of runs keeps it close until then.
Washington 66, Gonzaga- 73.
Thanks so much to Max for taking the time out of his day to inform us for this upcoming excellent matchup. You can check out my answers to his questions on UW Dawg Pound here (and yell at me for my score prediction in this thread). Also, make sure to follow Max on Twitter if you wish to stay informed about Huskies basketball.