(1) Gonzaga vs. (11) Xavier
Initial Thoughts: Hang on a second. You’re telling me Gonzaga scored 0.91 points per possession, turned it over 16 times, only hit 4 threes, missed 11 free throws, Nigel Williams-Goss had an O-rating of 64, and West Virginia grabbed 43% of their misses…and Gonzaga won? What in the hell? Defense wins championships, folks! Like an insane performance by a hockey or soccer goalie as the team crumbles around him (or her!), the Zags’ defense stood on its head against the West Va onslaught, allowing only 27% shooting while contesting nearly all of the Mountaineers’ 60 shots (which was 16 more than Gonzaga took). Fun/not fun stat: there were 51 fouls in that game, but somehow no one fouled out (I wanted to disqualify myself from watching both gross offenses at times, though).
On the other side of the bracket, Chris Mack and his lovable band of Musketeers again used an impressive zone defense, excellent/timely shooting, and phenomenal offensive execution to take down another ostensibly more talented team. The zone completely took Arizona out of its game, teasing/forcing them into taking 27 of their 62 shots from deep (44% of their attempts, compared to taking 31% of their shots from deep throughout the year). They kept the ball out of the post and, most importantly, out of the hands of Nordic assassin Lauri Markkanen, who took his final shot with over 11 minutes left.
Gonzaga on Offense: The wind sweeping the West is the Bulldogs’ collective sigh of relief that comes from not having to play West Virginia’s berserk, crank-it-to-11 defense anymore. Xavier will make things difficult with their matchup zone and occasional curveballs (1-3-1 here, man-to-man there), but the level of physicality and constant pressure simply isn’t on the level of the Mountaineers. I’d be shocked if Nigel Williams-Goss doesn’t bounce back in a big way in this one, knifing into gaps in X’s zone, finding shooters, and knocking down a few perimeter shots himself.
As they’ve discovered just how effective their zone can be, Xavier has hit an extremely convenient run of three-point-averse teams. FSU, Arizona, and Gonzaga rank 314th, 282nd, and 289th, respectively, in percentage of points scored from beyond the arc, meaning the X will likely imitate the style they’ve played in the last two games: tons of that matchup 1-1-3 zone, making sure to sag and take away interior passes when not guarding the ball, and tempt Gonzaga into taking ok-but-not-great deep looks. FSU and Arizona combined to go 11-48 from three, and if Gonzaga shoots a similar 25ish% on a high volume of attempts (20-25?), Xavier can hang around on this end. The best part of the zone is that it takes away the corner and the top of the key, tempting the offense into difficult wing threes:
Of course, like Arizona, Gonzaga has shooters that can hit these – Jordan Mathews is dead-eye, as evidenced by his game-winner against the Mountaineers, and Williams-Goss, Josh Perkins and Silas Melson are no joke either. But keeping the ball out of Przemek Karnowski’s hands and forcing the ball to stay around the perimeter (rather than allowing inside-out ball movement) will make these shots just a tad bit tougher.
To mix it up, Xavier will throw in some man, but Karnowski and Zach Collins are big enough mismatches with size (Mount Poland) and athleticism (Collins) that it will be tough to stay in that scheme for long. X will also need to get back consistently, because the Gonzaga transition machine can rack up points in a hurry with Williams-Goss leading the way.
Xavier on Offense: One of the most noticeable themes from Xavier/Arizona was how consistently open Xavier’s shooters were able to get. Part of that is due to the brilliant sets Mack runs – let’s admire this insanely beautiful after-timeout play one more time (and acknowledge Mack for actually going 2-for-1!!):
However, some of the open shots were also because Allonzo Trier, Lauri Markkanen, and others consistently couldn’t get around screens and close out (particularly off the ball). Completely opposite of that, Gonzaga largely did an amazing job of staying with shooters against WV, contributing to their horrid 5/23 performance from deep, with the final possession being the most notable example. I think Jevon Carter is still trying to scrape Nigel Williams-Goss off of him after the latter glued himself to Carter for 38 seconds, despite two offensive rebounds on the possession.
Bulldog opponents have some of the longest average possessions in the country (332nd, to be exact), mostly due to their excellent perimeter D and forcing opponents to work for every shot they get. Melson will likely get the Trevon Blueitt assignment, tracking him all over the court and denying some of the quicker shots he was able to get off against Arizona. Like the ‘Cats, Gonzaga doesn’t really have a big 6’7 wing defender, but Melson should be a decent match.
The D becomes terrifying when Collins is on the floor. He’s an NBA-level rim protector, a bouncy 7-footer who can erase shots at the rim and still grab the rebound. Like prior rounds, Xavier will need to hit outside shots to loosen up the defense, particularly from guys like Malcolm Bernard and Kaiser Gates.
I also mentioned this against West Virginia (and it somehow didn't backfire against the Zags), but they need to keep Xavier off the offensive glass. The Muskies can get a lot of open looks when Sean O'Mara, RaShid Gaston, and Tyrique Jones are able to rip down boards (Gaston is 17th nationally in O-reb rate, and Jones would be 4th if he played more minutes), and allowing a 43% offensive rebound rate again is a recipe for Zag disaster. They have the horses to dominate the boards; it just comes down to winning 50/50 balls and (extremely ESPN announcer voice) wanting it more.
Key Factor(s): Possibly the biggest key in this one is how well Gonzaga shoots the ball. Xavier’s zone does a great job of preventing paint catches and forcing opponents into staying on the perimeter, so Williams-Goss, Perkins, Mathews, Melson, and even Collins/Williams will need to bury a few. I doubt Mack pulls out of the zone unless Few’s boys are throwing fireballs up backwards, so even if Mathews & co. hit a flurry of them, the Musketeers must stay the course. If you have some way for determining how well college kids will shoot on the most massive stage of their lives, then props to you – I live with my often-inaccurate gut. I’m banking on the Zags being a little more calm after surviving the test from the Mountaineers and hitting enough shots to be deadly.
Final Predictions: This will likely play out similar to the Arizona game - back and forth, big shots from both teams, should be an awesome game to watch. I think Gonzaga hits a few extra threes and gets a couple more stops than the Wildcats did, and Marky Few finally gets to cut down the nets as the first team headed to Glendale.