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Game Preview: Gonzaga vs. Alabama

The Zags play the Crimson Tide in the return of the Battle in Seattle on Saturday

NCAA Basketball: ESPN Events Invitational-Alabama vs Miami Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports

After a stretch of 4 games in 8 days, the Zags look to get back on track following two rough games against Duke in Las Vegas and Tarleton State in Spokane. Saturday is the first time Gonzaga and Alabama have met, and both teams are heading into the game with one loss on their record. We know how the Zags have looked as of late, but let’s take a deeper dive on the Crimson Tide and keys for the Zags to get out of the westside with a much-needed get-right win.

Meet the Opponent

Alabama Crimson Tide, 6-1, KenPom #11

Head coach Nate Oats is in his third year with the SEC behemoth from Tuscaloosa and has maintained a team that reached new heights in 2020-2021, where the program was a 2 seed in the NCAA tournament (their first Sweet 16 since 2004). Oats brought with him a high-octane offense and a transition-minded pace that has landed his teams no lower than 37th in the country in his 7 years as a head coach.

They’re sitting on KenPom at 23rd in tempo and 11th in offense in this early season, thanks in large part to their bevy of shooters who have the green light from outside. Alabama averages nearly 29 three-point attempts per game and shot less than 20 attempts only twice. In the three games decided by single-digits, the Crimson Tide shot under 30% from outside. This is doubly notable considering that this includes Drake sitting at 64th in KenPom, South Alabama ranking 192nd and 117th ranked Iona whom they lost to.

Leading scorer Jaden Shackelford is averaging 18 points and 39.4% shooting off of 9.1 attempts from outside per game. The lefty plays largely off-ball and plays 31 minutes per game alongside ballhandler Jahvon Quinerly and Keon Ellis.

Quinerly is more of a speedy dribble-driver who excels getting to the cup. He utilizes his speed to catch defenders backpedaling with top-flight shiftiness. Ellis is another incredible shooter, averaging 46% on the year off of 30 attempts. Much like Quinerly last season, freshman JD Davison is a small athletic guard that comes off of the bench to create instant offense and havoc in transition and above the rim.

Oats splits the frontcourt duties fairly evenly between forwards Juwan Gary, Darius Miles and Noah Gurley in addition to 7-foot center Charles Bediako. Gurley, Miles and Gary offer elite athleticism and showcase an interchangeable length that was the Tide’s identity last season. Bediako is just a freshman but has proved himself early playing near 20 minutes per game and averaging 1.7 blocks in the process.

What to watch for

How will Gonzaga combat the perimeter shooting of Alabama?

The Bulldogs’ guards will need to stay attentive as all three guards possess a speed and knack for losing their man. Shackelford is also absolutely fearless in terms of shooting with a contesting defender in his face. He also loves extending his shot, willingly shooting from well over 25 feet out. With Shackelford, his man will need to go over screens and take away his left-handed drive which is his main alternative when pressured. Alabama also loves pushing in transition and off of opponent makes, so the Bulldogs will need to get back at all times.

Because of Shackelford, Quinerly and Davison’s solid dribble penetration, the Zags will need to pick their spots in terms of help defense as the Tide love the kick out for a clean three-point look. The rotational defense we saw against the Tarleton State Texans will not fly against this team.

Who will benefit most from a frenetic pace?

Both teams are top 20 in length of possession and will no doubt look to get out and run to initiate their offense. Turnovers have been a major talking point in the Zags’ last two games in which they averaged 16.5 per contest. Luckily for them, Alabama’s defense has not appeared to be particularly adept in creating them. Additionally, they also are turnover prone, topping Gonzaga’s 13 per game with a 14.1 average. That combination could do wonders for Andrew Nembhard, who has had two out-of-character performances with 9 turnovers. Getting Nembhard going in transition could help him and the offense get back on track.

It will be interesting to see how many minutes Few gives his starters in this kind of amped-up pacing. Nembhard has averaged 36 minutes over his last three games, and it may be in Few’s best interest to extend playing time for freshmen Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis. Hickman has only turned the ball over 4 times in his 158 minutes of action and has a team-best 136 offensive rating, which ranks as 51st best in the country.

Can the Zags get back to their old ways?

Because of the early ball pressure displayed by Duke and Tarleton State, the Zags have not been able to operate the continuity offense that we’re all accustomed to, especially the masterclass post that has been potential Player of the Year Drew Timme’s calling card. Timme is a career 64% field goal shooter but has shot 14 for 27 the last three games. Not terrible by any imagine but has been a clear indicator that things have not come as easily the last couple of weeks. His 2 attempts against Tarleton State were his fewest since his freshman season.

Alabama is a team that excels at team defense that forces opponents to beat them by getting beat in isolation. They rank seventh in the country in limiting assists per made field goal, which means that Timme will continue to have his work cut out for him.

Game information

Time: 5 PM PT
TV: ESPN2
Radio Link
Online Link

The line hasn’t been set yet, but Gonzaga is favored by nine-points according to KenPom.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.