Note: Apologies for the absence in posting...busy holiday season followed by an illness which knocked me out for some time!
The 'December lull' has become a pretty familiar phrase in Spokane over the past few seasons. While the Gonzaga Bulldogs have largely been one of the best teams in the nation during November, their struggles during December have stood out. This year, the Bulldogs face a very difficult end to the month of December with a game this evening against Baylor followed by a New Years Eve date with Oklahoma State in Stillwater. Both teams present very difficult matchups for the Zags and many are wondering if this Bulldogs squad, which has looked shaky recently, can muster up two solid performances to finish off 2012. It starts tonight with Baylor which, as usual, possesses freakish amounts of athleticism that will be sure to give Mark Few and company fits.
While recent sentiment in regards to this team has been 'anxious' (at best), it is worth noting that, with a win, Gonzaga would capture their best start to a season in 46 years. If that is going to happen, it is going to have to start on defense, particularly in the backcourt. Baylor has a trio of skilled guards in Pierre Jackson, Brady Heslip, and A.J. Walton that can't be allowed to get hot and bury the Bulldogs. Jackson leads the Bears with 19 points per game and has solidified himself as one of the top guards in the country. He is shooting 36% from three point range and can get hot at any moment. The Bears have another extremely skilled guard in Brady Heslip who has been one of the top three point gunners over the course of his career. He's shooting 37% from deep and has carried the Bears to several wins based solely on his shooting ability.
Baylor isn't completely guard dominated as they have one of the top freshman in the country in Isaiah Austin. As a first year player, Austin is averaging 14 points and 9 boards per game. He is an extremely lengthy 7'1'' player that the Zags will have a hard time matching up with. While the Zags have no shortage of bigs, none really have the defensive ability to take on Austin by themselves. While I'd expect Kelly Olynyk and Przemek Karnowski to match up with Austin for the most part, they will likely need to double the talented freshman quite a bit in this game. Rounding out the Bears' top performers is Cory Jefferson, a solid power forward that is averaging 13 points per game. While he stands at 6'9'', Jefferson leads the team in blocks with 2.5 per game.
Tonight's game will likely have a major ripple effect on the rest of the season. A Gonzaga win could catapult this team into Stillwater with plenty of momentum before kicking off the WCC slate. A Gonzaga loss could start a slide. After tonight's game, the Bulldogs will hit the road for three straight games before returning home against Saint Mary's and then going back out on the road again against Portland and Butler. While calling any regular season game 'the most important game of the year' may sound dramatic, I truly do think tonight's game will greatly impact the rest of the season for the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
After what we saw against Illinois, the key for me is to guard the perimeter. Jackson and Heslip both possess the ability to breakout at any moment and hang 30 on the Zags if they let them. Gary Bell, Guy Landry Edi, and Mike Hart are going to have to be flying around out there on defense. Offensively, it would be great to see either one of Gonzaga's much hyped sophomore guard duo come out with a big performance tonight. Both have had struggles this year, particularly Kevin Pangos and they need to snap out of it if the Zags are going to win this one. Lastly, Kelly Olynyk and Przemek Karnowski are going to have to combine to beat up Isaiah Austin. The freshman big man is very skilled but he's still 7'1'', 220 lbs. He can be pushed around and doesn't exactly live for contact. If these things can happen, I would feel very confident about a Gonzaga victory. However, the memory of Illinois weighs heavily on my mind...