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Game Preview: Zags vs San Francisco

The number one team in the country looks to keep the offense rolling

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 18 Jerry Colangelo Classic - San Francisco v Grand Canyon Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When news broke early that Pacific needed to cancel their game against Gonzaga, fans were left wanting more from a team that seems to clearly be playing their best basketball to date. The number one ranked Zags are coming off of a historic three-game run against conference opponents, averaging an absurd 114 points. They’re the first team in the modern era to score 60-plus points in the first half of three straight games.

Luckily, Gonzaga fans need not wait for a week with the athletic department rescheduling the previously lost matchup against the San Francisco Dons for Thursday night. San Francisco comes to Spokane after dropping their first conference game against BYU last Saturday. The loss was a major blow to the Dons’ postseason chances as one of the country’s favorite dark horse tournament bubble teams.

The Dons have been a fun fourth bid talking point for the conference since the season started thanks in large part to their returning backcourt of Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz, as well as transfers Yauhen Massalski and Gabe Stefanini rounding out the rest of the key facets of the rotation. And they’ve largely lived up to those assertions, winning against potential tournament teams in Davidson, UAB and Fresno State. But the Dons lack a marquee win to seal their ticket to the dance.

BYU in San Francisco was supposed to be that win, but the Dons could not hold onto their double-digit lead that had them as favorites up until the final two minutes. Now, they likely need to win three of their remaining four games between Gonzaga (they play again in San Francisco on February 24), at BYU and Saint Mary’s (the series’ other game in Moraga was canceled because of COVID and has not been rescheduled).

The line on DraftKings has yet to be posted, but KenPom has the Zags as a 15 point favorite, projected to win 87-72.

Can the Dons do it, or is their fate already sealed? Here’s a look at the potential Cinderella.

Meet the opponent

San Francisco Dons, 15-3 (2-1), KenPom #34

The returning backcourt of Bouyea and Shabazz get the most attention on this roster, and understandably so if you just watch a few minutes of the two on the court. The two are lightning quick and able to create their own shot in isolation like very few college guards can.

Bouyea shines brighter as the lead guard, but the two are perfectly happy taking turns in penetrating the defense and creating looks for themselves and their teammates. Bouyea and Shabazz average 17.9 and 12.6 points respectively and are the security blanket for head coach Todd Golden’s team when they have to create offense late in the shot clock.

But what takes this team to another level is the addition of Massalski from San Diego this offseason. He’s one of the best rebounders in the country, ranking 16th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, giving Golden’s team second-chance after second-chance in any offensive possession. He averages 8.2 rebounds per game and 3.5 are offensive. His 14.1 point average puts him second in scoring on the team, and he’s a decent passer moving the ball inside-out for his teammates.

Additional transfers Stefanini, Zane Meeks and Patrick Tapé as well as Josh Kunen and Julian Rishwain round out a rotation that offers great defensive length and enough scoring to space things out for their main contributors listed above.

The Dons exceed in large part of their ability to play great defense that discourages teams from shooting high percentage threes as well as a defense that forces you to beat them off of the dribble. They allow the twenty-second lowest percentage of three-point attempts of all field goal attempts in the country and rank fifth in the fewest assists per field goal made in KenPom. Opponents are shooting 27.8% from three and they do a decent job of forcing turnovers.

For the Dons to shock the new number one team in the country in their own arena, they will need for their defense to hold up and their secondary players like Rishwain and Stefanini will need to make major contributions from outside.

What to watch for

Can the Zags' offense keep it up?

Maybe not against Pepperdine or Santa Clara, but Gonzaga’s offensive showing against BYU was still a bit of a surprise. BYU had a ranking of 18th in KenPom’s adjusted defense, higher than San Francisco’s 24th ranking.

But unlike the Cougars, or even the Waves or Broncos, the Dons do not play at a tempo that might allow an absurd 110-plus points. That is if they are able to stop the barrage of three-point shooting that the Zags have displayed in conference play. The Zags shot 37% in their last three games and 41% at home against BYU and Pepperdine. The narrative of a subpar shooting team is dashed.

The tempo and high steal rate will likely end Gonzaga’s run of 110 point games and their streak of 60-plus first-half points. But it’s hard to envision any sort of major slowdown for a Zags offense playing the best it's ever played.

But what about the Zags’ defense?

While Gonzaga posted these incredible offensive numbers, there may have been some side-eyes due to the points that they’ve surrendered. Yes, they’ve won by an average of 30 points per game, but 83 points is still a lot of points to give up. But the Zags were still able to hold their opponents to under a point per possession while scoring at will.

But it will also be a good test for the backcourt to defend the quickness and shot creation that Bouyea and Shabazz excel at. Andrew Nembhard’s offense has made a significant uptick since the Texas Tech game but his defense has been present and significant all year long. He’s averaging 1.7 steals per game. It will be interesting to see how Gonzaga chooses to try to contain their guards and force San Francisco’s secondary players to be the ones to beat them.

Who’s going to slow down the frontcourt?

We knew we were going to see something like this kind of domination from Drew Timme, Chet Holmgren and Anton Watson. The frontcourt trio has averaged 53 points over the last three games. It’s hard to envision that changing much looking at San Francisco’s lineup.

Massalski will likely need help with Timme and Tapé and Meeks give up too much length to be able to adequately handle Holmgren’s size. This matchup advantage was noticeable in the nonconference and only has become more apparent in league action. How Gonzaga utilizes this extended time with a clear advantage will be interesting. Will they be happy using these reps to extend Timme and Watson’s perimeter shooting? Will we see more sets with Holmgren and Timme working off of each other?

As long as they have this sort of size advantage, it’s difficult to imagine Gonzaga’s next big test before March.