Villanova and Gonzaga meet this Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic for a rumble at the Garden. With the game approaching closer and closer, I asked Peter Woodburn from The Slipper Still Fits, SB Nation’s Gonzaga site, for his perspective to help preview the upcoming big game.
Tip-off is this Tuesday night, at 7 p.m. For those of you who can’t make the game in-person, it’ll be broadcast on ESPN.
Despite what you guys lost in Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins, and Jordan Mathews--four guys that were at the forefront of last season's run to the national title game--Gonzaga has looked really solid so far at 7-1. A number of guys have stepped up. How does Mark Few work through roster turnover so well and get so much out of his guys year in and year out?
Mark Few's philosophy has long been he doesn't recruit the best players, he recruits the players who best fit his system. This helps Gonzaga stay relevant year in and year out, because in years, such as last year, where the Zags lost quite a bit, they still retain just as much talent.
For the fans that haven't gotten a glimpse of the Zags yet (might be past some of our East Coasters' bedtimes for some games), who are the players to watch out for and what do each of them bring to the table?
Everyone will mention what Gonzaga lost last year, but few people will mention what they retained from a championship level team. Johnathan Williams is one of the top forwards in the country and is crafty scorer who is just as comfortable posting up as he is taking an 18 foot jumpshot. Josh Perkins is one of the top three point shooters in the country (only three players attempt as many as he does per game and have a higher percentage). Silas Melson is a hard-nosed guard who is the team's best perimeter defender and is never afraid of drawing contact at the hoop. Killian Tillie is a crafty forward who is already showing up on some NBA mock draft boards.
These are the four players that form the majority of what everyone will see. Gonzaga has a rather thin bench this year, and Mark Few has relied upon his starters quite a bit. There is some high level talent on the bench in Rui Hachimura and Zach Norvell, but both players consistency has been a bit of an issue so far.
Each year, Gonzaga seems to be one of the best defensively. Currently, the Bulldogs are 27th in defensive efficiency. Top 100 over the last decade, and top 50 in eight of those years. No. 1 last year. What is it about the way Gonzaga plays on that end of the court that give opposing teams a tough time scoring? How do the pieces fit within Mark Few's system?
Gonzaga's defense is less about the measurable stats like forcing turnovers, stealing the ball, or getting the blocks. It is more about clogging passing lanes, playing the zone right, and just forcing teams to take bad percentage shots. Their holding opponents two-percentage shots to just 40.2 percent, good for tenth in the nation. They have a streak dating back approximately 90 years of not letting opposing teams shoot higher than 50 percent from the floor, and before anyone says “but yeah WCC,” this list includes teams such as Xavier, North Carolina, Florida, Iowa State, etc.
The Zags defensive prowess often shows up in its zone. Gonzaga will start off in a man to man and will switch to a zone defense as they see fit. The guards are all big guards and are capable of holding their own in potential defensive mismatches. Williams and Tillie are quick on their feet and can hold their own against smaller opponents. In an era of positionless basketball, the Zags are hardly there yet, but the roles are less defined in that regard. Everyone buys in and knows where they need to be, which is the only way a zone defense can work.
What worries you about this Villanova team? What should Gonzaga be most concerned about?
Um, is everything a possible answer? This will be a really interesting game, because Villanova is the most balanced squad (offensively and defensively) the Zags have faced so far. They also play a much smaller brand of ball than most teams do, and potentially can force the Zags out of their comfort zone a bit with that. I mean, you guys are just a really smart team that plays smart basketball, almost in the same facet as Gonzaga. Not a lot of top 10 plays here but win a whole ton of games. This is a game where the Zags cannot shoot themselves in the foot, which they sometimes have a tendency to do, because Vilanova will punish every extra possession.
What should Wildcat fans be worried about this year's Gonzaga squad?
This team can score with the best of 'em. The Zags have had some up and down swings, but they haven't ever been taken out of a game this season. They pushed Florida to two overtimes before succumbing to a relentless barrage of three pointers. Texas pulled out their havoc D and almost, just almost, forced an upset, but this squad is tried and tested. So far this year, they have played virtually every style of team you will play: three point shooting madness from Florida, absurdly lengthy big guys in Texas, an insane pace of play from Creighton, and they have either won (or almost won) each time. They can score in bursts in rather quiet ways. This should, by all accounts, be a close game, and the Zags have the personel to hit big shots down the stretch to pull of an upset (a slight upset).
Take me behind the curtain as a Gonzaga fan for a bit. Looking back, Kyle Wiltjer (played for Gonzaga and Kentucky) said on the record that "Gonzaga is in my opinion, the best fanbase in the country, and I'm not exaggerating at all." How do you guys stay motivated and up all year round? It seems like the Bulldogs play a tough, exciting non-conference schedule, then things slow down a bit in conference play until March. Do you guys feel any boredom when playing conference games against teams not named St. Mary's or BYU? If not, how do you stay passionate?
It all begins and ends with the fact that Gonzaga is situated in Spokane, which for those who do not know the state of Washington's geography, sits in eastern Washington, and is called the biggest city on I-90 between Seattle and Minneapolis. There isn't anything else going on in Spokane in the winter, outside of people trying to survive the dreary snowstorms. Gonzaga's initial run in 1999 tapped a uniquely potent market, because there is just nothing else happening. On campus, that translates to being the big ticket, and that is why each game looks like it is taking place in front of an absolute madhouse, because the Zags aren't just Gonzaga's team, they are the entire city's team.
But I will say, personally, I always prefer closer games to just huge 30 point blowouts. So yeah, the WCC can be a bit of a grind at times. That also sounds like the worst thing to complain about when typed out....
Gonzaga has been a West Coast Conference powerhouse for a while. Take Wichita State for example, would you like to see the Zags take a jump for a more competitive conference, seeing how they left the Missouri Valley to join the American Athletic Conference? If you could pick, what conference would you love to see Gonzaga move to?
I think everyone would love to see the Zags jump out of the WCC into a more competitive conference, but logistics and the lack of a football team make it impossible. When the Big East was doing its little shakeup, that seemed like the most logical choice, considering the jesuit connection and the basketball pedigree. Unfortunately, the fact that Spokane is thousands of miles away from everyone else made that a moot point. The west coast is just too spread out, so for the sake of school size in all of the other sports, the WCC makes sense. If none of that was an issue, Big East would be it.