John Calipari vs Mark Few. Two of college basketball’s top coaches go head-to-head. It just sucks that Calipari didn’t have the guts to play at the McCarthey Athletic Center to start off this six-year “home-and-home” series between #4 Kentucky (2-1) and #2 Gonzaga (2-1). Out of our control, what are you going to do?
No one in the country has had a tougher stretch of games this early in the season than Gonzaga does with Michigan State (W), Texas (L), and now Kentucky. Here are some things to keep a keen eye on while watching this battle of Top 5 teams:
Drew Timme vs Oscar Tshiebwe, a battle of NPOY candidates. The reigning WCC Player of the Year is coming off a strong performance in his home state (18 points on 7-10 FG, 9 rebounds). As for the ruling National Player of the Year, Tshiebwe is now healthy after playing his first game against the Michigan State in the Champions Classic (22 points on 9-17 FG, 18 rebounds, 4 blocks) and looks even stronger than he was in 2021-2022. You won’t get a much better high profile matchup all season long.
Gonzaga has to keep the former West Virginia Mountaineer off the glass. Biggest task of the night. Tshiebwe didn’t only lead the nation in rebounding last season, he did it in dominant fashion at 15.1 RPG.
Gonzaga has to limit the turnovers and it all starts with Nolan Hickman. 20 turnovers in a single game is a recipe for disaster, especially against a very good team. That’s what happened against Texas and I give blame to the leaders of the offense. Hickman (4 TO), Strawther (4 TO), Timme (5 TO). A ton of mental mistakes on their part. Don’t force those passes in the halfcourt sets, let it ride out.
Nolan Hickman has a lot of responsibility with setting up Gonzaga’s offense for success and has a rough go about it to start. It’s dealing with a lot of ball pressure, taking care of the rock, commanding the plays. That’s tough but he has do it for every second he’s on the floor. Hopefully, the ankle injury that he suffered on Wednesday won’t hold him back.
Sahvir Wheeler is as quick as any guard can come. When he comes off the high screens at the top of the key, watch out. The former Georgia Bulldog can burst to the rim and squeeze in tiny spaces for a bucket with his small stature.
I have a bad feeling that Gonzaga will struggle to stop Wheeler from getting in the paint. Maybe this would be the game to start Hunter Sallis to slow him down? I’m sure Few is contemplating it.
Gonzaga needs to do a better job playing perimeter defense. This Kentucky squad as a whole shoots well from deep (42.6 3P%). Even though they struggled against Michigan State a few days ago, Calipari’s heavily recruited group can get hot at any time. Especially Antonio Reeves (Illinois State transfer) and CJ Fredrick (Iowa transfer).
If Kentucky can fix the offensive spacing from the Champions Classic and spread out the floor more, I see a major problem defensively for the Zags.
Kentucky looks to limit the transition play of the Zags.
Gonzaga has been known for playing up-tempo and quick on the breaks. Not so far this season and that just won’t be a winning formula for the Zags.
The Gonzaga guards need to step up and go back to the old ways of our transition offense. Simple as that.
Watch out for Cason Wallace’s swift hands. The former McDonald’s All-American had 8 steals in the victory over Michigan State. You never seem to see him until he’s gone the length of the court for a quick two.
If you watched the Champions Classic, the guard play was lacking in the two overtime periods once Tshiebwe fouled out. This is where Wallace needs to step up when the big man is off the floor and I know that may be asking a lot out of the freshman.
Tip-off from Spokane Arena is at 4:30 PM PT on ESPN this Sunday. Gonzaga needs this one badly, I don’t remember the last time the Zags were ever at .500%.
Arden Cravalho is a Gonzaga University graduate from the Bay Area... Follow him on Twitter @a_cravalho