Happy holidays everyone. After a 48 hour tour of the Northwestern State Demons, the Zags are back at it with another high profile opponent on Saturday in the Virginia Cavaliers. We spoke with Caroline Darney over at Streaking the Lawn to learn a bit more about our next opponent.
You can check out our answers on their site here.
TSSF: Probably the last time a majority of Gonzaga fans watched a Virginia game was the 2019 National Championship. Considering just a few of those players are still on the Cavaliers now, who are the major guys? Where does the offense come from?
STL: The only player that had meaningful minutes on that National Championship squad is now-junior Kihei Clark, who started at point guard for the Hoos in the title game. Clark isn’t going to wow anybody at first glance, but he’s a tenacious defender and has really good feel for the game. The big name for Virginia this season is Marquette transfer Sam Hauser, and he’s someone that has arrived in Charlottesville to help out offensively. He’s shooting 68% from two and 44% from three so far this season. Trey Murphy, a transfer from Rice, brings length to the wing and has a really nice shooting touch (52% from three). Tomas Woldetensae, Casey Morsell, and Reece Beekman will see playing time in the backcourt, and Justin McKoy and Kadin Shedrick bring a lot of length to the front court. And then there’s Jay Huff. Jaybraham Lincoln. The Hoonicorn. Huff is 7’1, is shooting 75% from two and 44% from three this season, and is third in the nation with a block % of 15.7%, per KenPom. He is highly efficient on both ends of the court, and can really stretch out a defense with his shooting abilities.
TSSF: Virginia is going to play Virginia ball and try to slow the tempo down to a snail’s pace. On the flip side, Gonzaga is perfectly happy sprinting up and down the court for the full 40 minutes. How does Virginia slow down one of the top offenses in the nation?
STL: Not to be that person, but, you gotta make your shots. This Virginia team has shown through a very small sample size that they don’t turn it over as much (13.6% of the time, No. 6 in the nation) and have an eFG% of 57%. If the Hoos can not turn it over and not miss shots, that generally reduces the opportunities that Gonzaga will have to run it. Obviously, they’re going to miss some shots (although if Virginia wants to make 100% of their shots on Saturday, I’m for that), so that is when the pack line principles will kick in. Virginia rarely crashes the boards, instead dropping back and setting up the defense. All that said, Gonzaga is very, very good and can really make you pay in transition.
When it comes to set defense, Virginia will have to make the Zags settle for contested shots and use clock to find good shots. While the Hoos are definitely...deliberate...on offense, the real “slow down” of the game comes defensively as teams have to use a ton of clock to find good look.
TSSF: Going off of that last question, Virginia is holding opponents to just 40.0 for two-point percentage. Gonzaga shoots 62.2 percent inside the arc. How can the pack line defense frustrate Gonzaga’s inside shooting into a rough night?
STL: I held back a little bit on the last one knowing this question was coming. The usual blueprint to beat Virginia is to make threes. The idea of the pack line is to deny easy looks inside, deny baseline, and make teams work. Heading into the Iowa game, I would have felt a SMIDGE more comfortable as the Zags were shooting 29% from deep. Obviously I don’t expect the same shooting performance as Gonzaga put out against the Hawkeyes (please, God, no), but I think the 34% they’re now averaging for the season is more accurate a depiction of the team.
With regards to slowing the inside shooting, Virginia will likely (hopefully) throw doubles at Timme, but they have to be well-timed and well-executed to prevent easy kick outs for threes. In an ideal world, driving lanes are cut off and Jay Huff is there to block anything that gets through. This year’s team has a lot of new faces with the first year players and transfers, so there have been some uncharacteristic breakdowns on the defense. Virginia fans are, of course, melting down at the slippage of the defense all the way to No. 5.
TSSF: Gonzaga’s offense has a lot of high-powered scorers this year. Which player do you think will give Virginia the hardest time?
STL: I don’t know how the answer isn’t Jalen Suggs. The dude has an offensive rating of 120, is shooting 50% from three, draws fouls (although he’s only shooting 60% from the line), and is a steal machine. Since this game was announced, I have been thinking about who will get the matchup with Suggs, and I’m not sure I know who Tony Bennett will throw at him first. We’ll likely see Casey Morsell — potentially one of Virginia’s best defenders — get the shot, or maybe they go with first year Reece Beekman.
I also worry about Kispert and Timme and Ayayi and Nembhard and...
TSSF: Gonzaga is the favorite going into this game. What does Virginia need to do to pull off the upset?
STL: Virginia has to limit turnovers (fewer than 10), shoot probably 40% from three, and hold Gonzaga to under 30% from three. So, basically, play a perfect game. I don’t want any of this to be construed as thinking Virginia can’t win this game; they absolutely can. With their new faces and breaks in action, I do think they have a lot of gelling to do on both ends of the court. Hauser, Huff, and Murphy are really good offensive players, and there’s going to be a level of defense that is just the norm for the Hoos. I hope this is a good one!
TSSF: Score prediction?
STL: Oof, I hate doing these (does anyone like them?). I think Gonzaga will build an early lead, Virginia will cut into it, but the Zags will win 74-62.