By: Jack O’Keefe
Spread: Gonzaga -23
8:00 pm Central – Alex G. Spanos Center, Stockton, CA
#1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (17-0, 8-0)
Looking for a redemption shot here with previewing the Gonzaga Bulldogs. I had the pleasure of typing up a preview for a postponed game between Gonzaga and Baylor earlier this season, so I thought I would take another stab at the top dog of the pack.
The Bulldogs are steamrolling their way through the West Coast Conference (WCC), with a perfect 8-0 record in conference play. The Bulldogs are winning their games by 25.4 points in conference play this season. The Zags defeated this same Pacific Tigers squad by 46 points in their previous outing. Forty. Six. That is simply unfathomable. Some folks are going to criticize the Bulldogs for playing in a weak conference come Selection Sunday. Gonzaga should move up to a higher echelon of competition to get a clearer indication of the team’s talent. To that I say rubbish. The American Athletic Conference has three teams in the top 80 KenPom rankings: Houston (6), Memphis (47) and SMU (60). The West Coast Conference has four teams in the top 80 KenPom rankings: Gonzaga (2), BYU (49), Saint Mary’s (77) and San Francisco (80). So why then does Houston not receive the same degree of scrutiny and suspicion that Gonzaga receives? Just my humble opinion, but I think it is because folks are tired of seeing Gonzaga dominant year after year. Gonzaga has made it to the NCAA Tournament every season under Mark Few. The Zags have made it to the Sweet 16 or beyond in five straight seasons. Gonzaga has appeared in every final AP Top-25 poll since the 2008-09 season. Gonzaga currently has seven players in the NBA, and countless others playing professionally overseas. Why must we criticize this? If anything, we should take a step back and really get a sense of appreciation for what a little school in Spokane, WA has built, a national powerhouse basketball program.
It is interesting how in my preview back in December, I said that Gonzaga might have two or three losses all season heading into the NCAA Tournament. I do not want to jinx things here, but I feel confident saying Gonzaga will go into the NCAA Tournament without a blemish on their resume. Does this hurt the Bulldogs in any way? Possibly. We have only really seen a handful of teams win the whole thing with a perfect record in college basketball (UCLA in the late 60’s and 70’s under Coach Wooden and Coach Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosier team). In more recent years, the 2014 Wichita State Shockers came into the NCAA Tournament with a 34-0 record, only to fall short to Kentucky in the Round of 32. The next year, the Kentucky Wildcats cranked out a 34-0 season, only to be upended by Wisconsin in the Final Four. History has shown it can be done, a perfect season, but it is by no means an easy feat to accomplish.
In case you have been living under a rock, here are a few quick hitters for you about the 2020-21 Gonzaga Bulldogs. Corey Kispert leads the Zags in scoring this season (20.2 points per game), Drew Timme is averaging 18.7 points per game, Jalen Suggs is averaging 13.5 points per game and Joel Ayayi is averaging 11.9 points per game. The Zags are an offensive juggernaut, averaging 94.3 points per game this season, best in college basketball. If there were one thing to perhaps criticize of the Zags in terms of offense would be their effectiveness at the free-throw line. The Zags are shooting 72.8% from the charity stripe (108th in Division-I). We were neglected an opportunity to see how far the Bulldogs would advance in the NCAA Tournament last season. It looks like March Madness will be a go for this year, so here is to Gonzaga, a team destined for its first National Championship in program history.
Pacific Tigers (5-4, 2-3)
It has been a minute since the Tigers were last in the NCAA Tournament. Aside from the drubbing they received from Coach Larranaga’s Miami Hurricanes in 2013, Pacific has had a knack for doing well in the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers were Big West Conference Champions for three straight seasons (2004, 2005 and 2006) and won two games in the NCAA Tournament during that span. The Tigers finished the season ranked #22 in the final AP Top-25 poll, the lone time the Tigers were ranked to close out a season. Since moving out of the Big West Conference and joining the West Coast Conference, Pacific has taken a significant step back. The Tigers have only finished above .500 two times in the last seven years. The Tigers are coming off their best season though last year (23-10), and have their hopes up for making a step forward with continued success under Coach Damon Stoudamire.
A key piece to their goal of continued success as a program starts with their leading scorer: Daniss Jenkins. The sophomore guard is averaging 13.6 points per game this season. Jeremiah Bailey has been a strong presence in the lineup for the Tigers as well, averaging 10.1 points per game and 7.1 rebounds per game. The Tigers have nice wins this season over a competitive UC-Riverside team, Montana State, Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount. The Tigers have been defeated this season by Nevada, Pepperdine and Gonzaga. It is a bit of a mixed variety results for the Tigers this season, but I think you have to focus more on the wins and less on the losses for a team that is growing. They are still a long ways away from competing for a NCAA Tournament berth, but if they start to make an effort to hang around the three-headed monster of the WCC (Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s), then there is reason to believe they may be worthy of an NCAA Tournament berth.
The Tigers are below average in terms of their offensive efficiencies this season. Pacific is averaging 67.4 points per game this season (247th in Division-I), they are shooting 40.0% from the field (307th in Division-I) and they are only averaging 10.2 assists per game (319th in Division-I). The Tigers are slightly better on the defensive side of the ball, averaging 3.8 blocks per game (90th in Division-I) and holding opposing teams to 44% shooting from the field (187th in Division-I) this season. In their last outing versus Gonzaga, the Tigers were held to 27.9% from the field, while Gonzaga shot nearly 50% from the field.
Pacific is highly overmatched for this game. They do not have the depth to compete with the Bulldogs. I think that really it is just a matter of how much Coach Few will let his starters do their damage in this one before benching them for the remainder of the game. Yes, Gonzaga won by 46 at home earlier this season, and they have the talent level to do the same kind of thing tonight as well. As we mentioned earlier, Gonzaga has simply been dominating the WCC competition, and I do not see things changing tonight. I believe Gonzaga will win by 30 or more points tonight against Pacific. Take Gonzaga -23 as your best bet.
Jack’s 2020 CBB picks: (17-13)