The Gonzaga Bulldogs are in the Sweet 16 for the fifth-consecutive year. For the second-straight year, they will face the long arms of the Florida State Seminoles, and hopefully, unlike last year, the Zags will move on to the Elite Eight.
Now that we have had a couple of days to digest the win over the Baylor Bears on Saturday, we here at TSSF look back at how Gonzaga performed, and what it’ll take to move on past FSU on Thursday.
Steven Karr: I thought Gonzaga came out and looked every part of a number one seed last weekend. They were the only number one seed to thoroughly destroy the 16 seed, ending the game in five minutes instead of 30 minutes. And then they smacked Baylor in the mouth in the first half on Saturday. The Bears made a little run in the second half, but it never really felt like Gonzaga was in danger of losing. With that being said, they are going to need a full 40-minute performance in every game from here on out, starting Thursday. We know the story with Florida State - they are long, they are athletic, they cause problems. In my opinion, this game is going to be more difficult than a match-up with Texas Tech or Michigan. Those teams play excellent team defense, but won’t cause quite the disruption at every position like FSU can. Killian Tillie is going to be an enormous part of their success if they want to beat the Seminoles, which I believe they will.
Arden Cravalho: Similar to what Steven said, Gonzaga played like the best #1 seed in the field after the first two rounds. The Bulldogs seem to have no weak links when it comes to the players in the rotation. Rui Hachimura did have a bit of a rough game against the Baylor Bears (only 6 points on 2 of 6 shooting). Thanks to Brandon Clarke’s stellar performance (36 points, 8 rebounds, 5 blocks, 2 steals), Gonzaga didn’t need Rui to make that much of an impact. Obviously, if Clarke continues to play like he did against the Bears, it’s going to be hard to stop this team. Although, Corey Kispert is the x-factor in my mind. He was spectacular from beyond the arc (4-6 3PT) and if he continues to shoot like he did in the second round, no opponent’s defense is going to have an answer for Gonzaga’s offense.
The revenge game against Florida State will be an exciting one. Two extremely athletic teams will be going at it and it should be fast-paced (my favorite type of game). FSU’s depth will be a problem for the Zags and as much as it pains me to say this (my prayers go out to the Cofer family), the Seminoles are really going to miss the presence of Phil Cofer on Thursday. He can score from anywhere on the floor and is a talented offensive rebounder. Gonzaga over Florida State, 77-71.
Peter Woodburn: I’ll just echo what everyone else said. For all of the hullabaloo Gonzaga always gets about being an overrated No. 1 seed, they are the one top seed that has looked the best for the entirety of their first two games. Virginia, yet again, had a slight scare for much of the first round, and as good as North Carolina looked over UW, it is important to remember they were down at half to Iona in the first round. Duke just about lost over the weekend. So yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about GU at the moment.
That said, there are no such things as easy games from here on out, and Gonzaga’s draw against Florida State has me about as confident as Gonzaga’s game against West Virginia in 2017, which is to say not very. FSU has looked really good this tournament, but the Zags also matchup much better than Murray State. The Zags will need to ride their offense on this one, because Florida State has the ability to throw a stick in the spokes at any moment. If the Zags can get off to a hot start, I think we all will rest a bit easier during the game. I still think that the Zags will win in the end. Clarke isn’t going to score 36 points, but Hachimura and Tillie aren’t going to combine for eight either. If this was an Elite 8 game, I’d be a lot more worried. However, the Zags will be rested for it. Florida State has dudes and depth, but I don’t think their offense can win this sprint.
Keith Ybanez: Peter’s right—Brandon Clarke is not going to score 36 points again. I predict that he will put up at least 70 and single-handedly carry Gonzaga into the Elite 8. Okay, maybe not, but don’t rule it out! Can you blame me for my delirium? Clarke’s generational performance on Saturday night will be rehashed in reverential tones on future TSSF articles long after your current motley crew of bloggers have retired from the content game. While Gonzaga certainly performed at the highest level of all the 1-seeds last weekend, I think there’s still another gear that this group can get to. When I think about what the best version of each remaining team looks like, I firmly believe that a Gonzaga team playing its best basketball cannot be beat. To return to the Final Four and cut down the nets, they will need to find that level for more than one half at a time.
Each of the remaining teams in the West region breezed through their respective games last weekend in impressive fashion. The #1 (Texas Tech), #2 (Michigan), and #10th (Florida State) ranked defenses per KenPom are the other three teams in Gonzaga’s regional, and all of them are good at defending the ball screen actions which are a staple of Gonzaga’s offense. (Extremely Stephen A. Smith voice) Howeva, perimeter shooting is still lacking with each of them, and I’m not convinced they’ll be able to keep pace with even a somewhat slowed Gonzaga offense. You may be concerned about the old adage that defense wins championships when considering the likelihood of Gonzaga topping the best defenses in the country. If you look back at the last four national champions, however, every single one of them was an elite offensive team that beat an elite defense en route to cutting down the nets. Let’s hope this trend continues.
Megan Stoudt: I think it’s safe to say that we all wholeheartedly agree that Gonzaga’s performance has been basically stellar thus far. Out of the three times that they’ve been a 1-seed, this has been the best showing coming out of the gate. In previous years GU struggled somewhat against their 16-seed opponents, whereas the Zags never trailed against FDU. The last two games have been some of their smoothest performances in the tournament - that’s definitely saying something since Baylor just wouldn’t go away. Obviously there’s been the good and the not-so-good thus far. Brandon Clarke = absolute beast; there’s no question about that. We already knew he was an awesome player, but 36 points against Baylor is just crazy good. On the other end of the spectrum, Tillie scored 17 points on Thursday but only added three during Saturday’s matchup due to early foul trouble limiting his ability/desire to be as aggressive as usual. Similar situation with Rui - he scored 21 against FDU, but only six against the Bears. In that game there were two factors in his failure to score: Baylor had players glued to him and he couldn’t get himself open for decent shots (33 FG%) and Clarke just couldn’t lose anytime the ball was in his hands. Kispert and Clarke had phenomenal games on Saturday while Tillie and Hachimura were pretty darn cold…imagine if every single part of the Gonzaga machine was humming along at 100%.