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Gonzaga-Virginia Game Preview: A Different Challenge

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Strength vs Strength

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, Gonzaga does not get to face Larry Owens for a third straight game. Larry Legend has left the Pacific Northwest, but will never be forgotten.

We now must move on, and who better to move on with than the reigning National Champions. The Bulldogs will travel to Fort Worth, Texas, where Drew Timme’s entire extended family will make a semi-home court advantage for the Bulldogs when they take on Tony Bennett and the 16th-ranked Virginia Cavaliers. They began the season in the top five before losing to San Francisco.

Like the Zags, the ‘Hoos also took a Covid pause in December. They went 18 days between their overtime win over Kent State and their thrashing of William and Mary this past Tuesday. They are 4-1, with their one loss coming to the Dons, the only KenPom top 100 team they have faced. Despite the less than stellar competition, everyone knows Virginia is incredibly tough to prepare for and even harder to play against. They will grind you down on both ends of the court and exhaust you to the point of mental frustration.

Defense

Anyone around college basketball knows about Tony Bennett-led defenses. His teams have been in the top 10 of defensive efficiency in 11 of his 15 seasons as head coach, dating back to his days at Washington State. Long-time Gonzaga fans remember their 51-47 grinder of a loss to the Cougs back in December of 2007 when Matt Bouldin and Austin Daye combined to shoot 1-for-20 from the floor.

This year’s team isn’t a whole lot different. The pack line defense, made famous by Tony’s father Dick Bennett, is predicated on stopping dribble penetration and forcing tough jump shots. Virginia’s most elite defenses have a rim protector to add to great perimeter defenders. They have that this year with Jay Huff. Opponents are shooting just 38 percent inside the arc against UVA this season, the sixth best mark in the country. On the other side, Gonzaga is shooting a whopping 64 percent inside the arc because their guards get downhill so well. If Virginia has their way, they will force Gonzaga to knock down contested threes, something the Zags have been inconsistent with all season.

Another staple of the pack line defense is to limit transition opportunities. They will trade fewer offensive rebounds for stopping teams on fast breaks. Virginia consistently holds teams to under 20 percent of their field goal attempts in transition every season. Conversely, Gonzaga shoots 36 percent of their shots in transition this year at a very efficient clip. It’s a battle of strengths. An elite defense that doesn’t allow transition baskets or dribble drives facing perhaps the best transition team in the country with a multitude of guards who can drive to the rim with ease.

Offense

Tony Bennett has often employed the blocker-mover offense as one of his staples. Two forwards set various types of screens for three guards and they read and react to how the defense plays it. Recently, he has added more and more continuity ball screen to their repertoire, something Gonzaga fans are obviously familiar with. This year, he has added another type of motion. It’s a 5-out, read-and-react offense that relies on drives and cuts instead of ball screens. They will rotate through all three of these types of offenses throughout games, depending on the lineups they throw on the court and how defenses defend them.

Regardless of what offense they are running, the thing that remains consistent is that they never turn the ball over. Sometimes it feels like Saint Mary’s on steroids. The Cavs are dead last in adjusted tempo, with an average possession length of a grinding 19 seconds. For reference, Gonzaga’s average possession length is under 14 seconds. Outside of last year, Virginia is the top 20 nationally in turnover percentage. They may not make a ton of shots, but they will not give Gonzaga free possessions and easy fast break opportunities.

After Tuesday’s win, Bennett said this of Gonzaga: “When you play a team as talented and as explosive as Gonzaga, I don’t know what prepares you for that. I know how good they are, and I know what we’ll have to do at a very high level to be in a game like that and make it competitive and hopefully be successful.”

Personnel

As mentioned earlier, Virginia’s offense struggled mightily last season. Part of the reason they won a National Championship was because their offense finally matched their defense. They were elite on both sides of the ball in 2019, with guys like DeAndre Hunter, Kyle Guy, and Ty Jerome all being able to get their own shot whenever they need. With those three gone, they simply didn’t have a go-to scorer last year.

This season, that has changed a bit with the addition of two transfers. Marquette transfer Sam Hauser, who sat out last season, has become their leading scorer at 13.4 points a game. Rice transfer Trey Murphy is averaging 11.6 and is very versatile. Those two are both excellent shooters and can create from anywhere on the floor. Combine them with Tomas Woldetensae and Virginia has three knock down shooters to go with their guard play.

Mainstays from that National Title team include starting point guard Kihei Clark, and big man Jay Huff. Clark is not a high-level scorer, partially because of his 5’7 stature. But he is an excellent passer and is great at drawing fouls. Huff is one of the best pick-and-roll guys in the country and averages 11.6 points. He’s also a high level shot blocker at 7’1, blocking nearly three shots a game while playing just 22 minutes per contest.

Hauser, Huff, and Murphy combine for nearly half the team’s points, but there are several role players who contribute on both ends of the floor. Casey Morsell and Rece Beckman are both promising young guards. Justin McKoy and Kody Stattmann are both swing men who have been in and out of the rotation early in the season. Freshman Kadin Shedrick is the back-up center to Huff, but has been wildly inconsistent with his scoring.

Since the start of the 2016-17 season, Virginia is 20-18 when allowing more than 1.00 points per possession. They’re 96-7 when allowing under 1.00 points per possession. Gonzaga fans may have nightmares of the Texas Tech defense that held the best offensive team GU has ever had to just 0.97 PPP, but that team played through the post and didn’t have guards who could drive with the ferocity that this year’s team has. It should be a really interesting battle of strengths.

Game Info

#1 Gonzaga vs #16 Virginia

Time: Friday Saturday, 1:00 pm pacific

Channel: CBS

Announcers: Tom McCarthy, Bill Raftery

KenPom Projection: Zags 71-66

Vegas Line: Gonzaga (-7), over/under 139.5