What a first day. Gonzaga found itself in a dog fight for 30 minutes, but still managed to nearly cover the 23.5 point spread. Kentucky, Iowa, and UConn, were not as fortunate as they lost to teams that were 13 and 7 seed lines away from them. But that’s why this is the most entertaining competition in the world, and why we all love it. Anything can happen in a single-elimination environment where you are counting on 18-22 year olds to maintain their composure in high pressure situations. On to the game observations:
- That was an absolute battle. Most pundits, along with Mark Few himself (who is decidedly not a pundit), commented on the fact that Georgia State was under-seeded. The haters and losers, of which there are many, crowed about those comments laying the groundwork for an overrated Gonzaga. Based on how the Panthers performed, that assessment was spot on. Georgia State is a talented team that was good enough to upset a single-digit seed if it didn’t get stuck playing against the #1 overall seed in the field.
- Tournament energy and nerves just hit different. The Zags looked like they were moving with much greater purpose than they have been in the last few weeks—the WCC February malaise is (hopefully) mercifully behind them—though the first half performance was not exactly what most of use were expecting. Georgia State, to its credit, played aggressive and fearless basketball. The Panthers were ready for the moment, which produced a somewhat frenetic but entertaining and very competitive game for the first 30 minutes. It was a great game for the neutrals, though the pucker factor was surely high for anyone wearing Gonzaga apparel yesterday.
- Georgia State did a nice job sprinkling in an active and aggressive 2-3 zone defense to combat Gonzaga’s interior attack, disrupt the reads for off-ball movement, and dare Gonzaga to shoot the ball from outside. That generally hasn’t worked out the best for teams, but it worked out for the Panthers since Gonzaga was ice cold from the three-point line. Georgia State’s defensive intensity and attentiveness in setting up their transition defense also yielded a pretty effective performance that limited Gonzaga’s opportunities for fast break points—until the dam broke.
- Anton Watson’s behind-the-back pass to a slashing Hunter Sallis was sweet and triggered major nostalgia for the Przemek Karnowski era. Huge Piece did that so many times to opponents, and it never got old. I miss that guy.
- Georgia State was not shy about fouling Drew Timme and sending him to the line. He didn’t make them pay for it. 6-13 from the line simply won’t get it done. It feels unfair to criticize someone who posted a 32 point and 13 rebound performance, which makes Timme the first Zag to have multiple 30+ point performances in the NCAA Tournament, but each one of those misses from the charity stripe stands out and is magnified at this time of year. He has to tighten that up. He’d be the first one to say that.
- The three-point shooting was abysmal. Despite Gonzaga’s excellence at scoring inside the arc, the offense is never going to look very good when you’re shooting the ball at a 18.2% clip from the arc, which was Gonzaga’s conversion rate in the first half. It’s hard to get those big runs and separate from teams when you can’t make a three.
- Despite his foul trouble, I would have liked to see Julian Strawther get back on the floor at some point during the final 10 minutes of the first half when the offense was sputtering. The Zags could have really used the threat he presents on the floor with the rest of the lineup struggling to score efficiently. I will say, however, that Hunter Sallis provided some really nice minutes off the bench in his tournament debut.
- Gonzaga is usually the team going on multiple runs per game, so it was a bit jarring to see them give up a pair of 7-0 runs in each half. The run early in the second half was especially bad as it reinvigorated Georgia State just as the Zags appeared to be pulling away.
- Chet Holmgren gets criticism for not taking over offensively in the big moments when Gonzaga needs a bucket, but he should get credit for how he takes over defensively in those same situations. He produced some clutch defensive stops and rebounds in crunch time. Scoring, and preventing the other team from scoring, are equally valuable. That was a monster performance in his tournament debut.
- It is so difficult to win six straight games in this tournament. Hell, it’s hard to win one. Go ask Kentucky. There are no bonus points for pretty wins this time of year. Just survive and advance.