How to Catch Today's Gonzaga Basketball Game – Sports Illustrated

Go ahead, catch your breath; it’s been quite the year for college basketball. Whether it was under-the-radar stars leading their programs to newfound success, to seemingly invincible bluebloods falling at the hands of unsuspecting underdogs, the five-month marathon was one to remember. Upsets brought about new storylines and wrinkles to the narrative until the very end, when over half of the AP top-10 teams lost in stunning fashions to conclude what was a historic regular season.
And as expected, conference championship week was no different, as the madness had already begun before March had even arrived. For the first time in a while, a handful of teams will enter the tournament with a legitimate shot to win it all as this could be the wildest six rounds in the tournament’s history.
Even as the overall No. 1 seed, adversity won’t be a stranger to Gonzaga in a loaded west region. Assuming business will be handled against Georgia State, Saturday’s potential matchups against either Boise State or Memphis pose interesting obstacles from a matchup perspective.
Beyond that, one of either Texas Tech, Alabama or Duke, all familiar opponents and two of GU’s three losses on the season, will most likely stand in the way of another Final Four appearance should those teams advance far enough for a potential rematch.
So, how does Mark Few and his Bulldogs survive the insanity and reach the mountaintop? Because if the tournament has proven anything, it’s that being the odds-on favorite isn’t always enough.
When in doubt, lean on the veterans
Lack of experience in the tournament has been the kryptonite for even the most talented teams (see 2018-19 Duke and 2014-15 Kentucky), especially against older squads in the later rounds. There’s no counting stat that can measure poise in high-pressure situations, which is a reason why games aren’t won on paper but on the court. Skill might reign superior in the regular season, but that all changes in the postseason.
While this might not be the most grizzled team Mark Few has had, there aren’t a lot of other programs that boast such a combination of talent and leadership. Four Zags fit that bill, but none will be relied upon more heavily than Andrew Nembhard and Drew Timme.
As the initiator of the nation’s best offense, Nembhard has quietly been one of the best point guards in college basketball this season. His scoring might not jump of the page, but as a selfless and smart decision-maker, his basketball IQ separates him from the rest of the pack. Taking care of the basketball has hardly been an issue this season, as the senior’s 3.2 assist-to-turnover ratio trailed only UCLA’s Tyger Campbell and Richmond’s Jacob Gilyard among guards that are in the tournament.
The moment hasn’t been too big for Nembhard either, evident in the WCC championship game where he put the Gaels away with clutch plays on both ends of the floor. In a close contest, his steady hand is a luxury for the Zags.
But when it’s time to get a bucket, Timme is the go-to guy. Now in his third NCAA Tournament, the All-American’s back-to-the-basket playstyle bodes well when the pace slows down and the offense is stalling. Last year’s postseason was proof that he can be dominant at any point during a ballgame, and with the right spacing, the paint is all his to own.
During Gonzaga’s tournament run last season, Timme averaged 20.3 points per game on nearly 65% shooting from the floor.
None of this is a discredit to Chet Holmgren, Hunter Sallis or Nolan Hickman and their development this season, but there’s immense value in having veterans who can right the ship and set the tone when things go awry.
Prepare for a different style of play
The Zags raced by their opponents all season to become the nation’s top scoring offense, as any missed shot could feel like a turnover due to the blistering pace. Fastbreaks and easy baskets was the bread and butter of the offense, as 32.4% of their field goal attempts came in transition this season according to hoop-math, third most in the country. Few teams from the WCC were able to counter, but that will not be the case against some stifling defenses in the tournament.
When looking at the West Region alone, there’s a handful of potential foes that could present challenges to Gonzaga’s run-and-gun scheme. Teams like Texas, Boise State and UConn boast disciplined defenses that rarely let quick scores get by, as all three are top-25 in allowing the fewest transition attempts from the opposition. Even New Mexico State and Georgia State, both of which held their opponents to under 50% effective shooting in transition attempts, have been sound all season in turning away opposing offenses.
Offensively, there’s not many teams in the Zags’ path that play with a similar up-tempo beat. Only the Crimson Tide rank inside KenPom’s top-25 adjusted tempo metric, while Arkansas (28th) and Memphis (34th) have shown tendencies to push the pace, but not at the same rate. Others though, like Texas and Vermont, are more methodical and patient in their attacks.
Familiarity with some of these programs should bode well for the Zags, who solved the Red Raiders and Longhorns earlier this season, but teams that drain the shot clock and move the ball well pose an interesting challenge. The Gaels are the prime example of how to combat Gonzaga with their physical yet disciplined defense and balanced approach on offense. It wouldn’t be surprising to see more talented tournament foes copy this blueprint.
Play Zags’ basketball
This one might seem obvious, but it’s true, nonetheless. There’s a reason why the Bulldogs are the No. 1 overall seed again, and it’s been on display all year long through their collective focus and connectivity that is rare to see in college basketball. Strategy and talent aside, the bond these players have formed with one another is truly the backbone of their success this season and will be just as vital in their attempt to bring home a national title.
On the court, that translates to crisp offensive sets, ball movement and communication on defense, all aspects that have defined Gonzaga’s brand of basketball. There aren’t many programs in the country that even come close to the level of efficiency Mark Few’s squad has played with this season. At best, it’s an unstoppable juggernaut that ceases to slow down until the final buzzer.
As mentioned earlier, teams will try and throw a wrench or wrinkle to cause disruption, but there’s only one that can truly stop the Zags: themselves.
Credit to Saint Mary’s, Alabama and Duke of course, but all three losses were highlighted by out-of-character tendencies that can’t all be attributed to stellar game planning from the opposition. Sometimes it boiled down to making and missing shots, but in general, stagnant offense that resorted to isolation plays was the culprit behind these letdowns.
Now, with a roster that has two All-Americans and a contender for the best point guard award, taking advantage of one-on-one matchups is by all means viable, but only for so long. Good teams will adjust and counter to post-up plays for Timme or isolation sets for Nembhard to keep the Zags one-dimensional and limit their scoring options. It can’t turn into a game of “your turn, my turn” on offense, or it’ll be a bitter end to what has been a stellar season.
The path to the title is still clear, though; build off what has worked all season and be prepared to adjust along the way. If executed, Gonzaga will be strolling out of New Orleans with new hardware.