I don't know anything about Gonzaga. Other than we all used to root for them, and then we didn't, and then we kinda did again and now we most certainly do not. So the kind folks over at The Slipper Still Fits were kind enough to answer some questions and get us up to speed.
If at the beginning of the season I told you Gonzaga would be an 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament, you would have told me...
Where do I sign? An 8-seed probably would have been my ceiling at the beginning of the year. A lot of people overlook what Gonzaga lost from a year ago but, in reality, outside of the obvious teams like Carolina, Connecticut etc, the Zags lost more than any team in the country.
Four starters were lost from last year's team and guys like Jeremy Pargo and Josh Heytvelt (when he wasn't doing drugs) were program defining players. Then when you lose a top-20 NBA pick in sophomore Austin Daye and senior wing Micah Downs, you can really argue that Gonzaga had to really get a brand new identity. Thankfully, Mark Few brought in an extremely mature and unheralded recruiting class which has stepped in and provided quality minutes throughout the season. Elias Harris has played like a top-10 recruit and he is really just the tip of the iceberg for the potential of this young class.
We've also benefited from finally having a consistently healthy Robert Sacre which has taken a lot of pressure off Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray. Our expectations obviously changed after this team played Michigan State down to the wire, won Maui, and played great in nonconference so an 8-seed is a bit disappointing but before the season I would have been overjoyed.
Which player(s) should strike fear into the heart of SU fans everywhere?
Steven Gray and Elias Harris. Gonzaga has had a lot of great players in its' history but Gray has blossomed into one of the best scorers I have seen come through Spokane. He came to GU as a sharpshooter but broke his wrist early on in his career and that really forced his to redefine his game and now he is at his best inside the arc. I think we saw yesterday just how good this team can be if Steven is involved early. The caveat with him, however, is that if he does not get off to a fast start, he can disappear and leave you scratching your head. The good news for Gonzaga fans (and hopefully bad news for Cuse fans) is that Steven has been playing with great confidence lately.
Elias Harris kind of follows the same storyline as Gray. Yesterday it was clear Mark Few was trying to get him good scoring looks early and that really put the Zags in the driver seat. Harris is still very raw but he can score in a variety of ways. He has a nice outside shot for primarily playing power forward but is most comfortable when he gets the ball on the wing and can drive and create. His defense is still a work in progress but if he isn't playing well, it is really hard for this team to beat anyone.
Assuming Arinze Onuaku doesn't play, how much does that work to Gonzaga's advantage?
If Robert Sacre plays the way he did last night on both ends of the court, I think it could be enormous. The Rick Jackson-AO-Kris Joseph combination is one of the most underrated front courts in the country and by taking out Onuaku, I think Gonzaga's size gets that much more crucial. Sacre goes 7-feet, Harris goes 6-8, and then reserves Will Foster (7-5) and Kelly Olynyk (6-11) can come in and eat up minutes. This is obviously a very sizable front line and they can all block shots and, what could be most important, they can take fouls.
The biggest issue for Sacre has been early foul trouble and Mark Few did a very smart thing last night and took him out right after his first foul to calm him down. He hit three fouls early in the second half but his set the tone early and played great late to help the Zags win. His offensive game has progressed by leaps and bounds this season but I think he will frustrate the undersized Rick Jackson and if he gets in foul trouble, the Zags will have a major advantage down low.
The key will be how well Mark Few uses his depth to combat AO not playing. Another big factor in my mind is Kris Joseph. His game last night was exactly what scares me about Syracuse because he can do so many things well. He might be the defining player in this match up in our eyes.
The 2-3 zone...what do the Zags know, how do they know and how will they react?
The Syracuse 2-3 zone has got to be the most beloved defense in America. I think everyone that watches basketball knows about it and how difficult it is to play against. I also know that it terrifies Gonzaga fans because turnovers have been an issue this season. The zone is is based on playing defense on a rope and getting in passing lanes and I think this is going to play absolute fits with Gonzaga early on. Sophomore point guard Demetri Goodson is not a consistent distributor at this point and Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray also can turn the ball over in droves from time to time. Combine that with Robert Sacre who still has trouble navigating in the post and you have some serious issues.
What really freaks me out about the 2-3 zone is the personnel. Everyone on Syracuse is athletic, most of the contributors have length and they are all very experienced and know how to run this zone. They won't lapse on defense much meaning that Gonzaga is going to have to work for every shot.
Working for every shot in the zone means that we'll have to be patient and not force up desperate threes. The great thing is that Gonzaga shot 50% from the floor against the best statistical defense in the country in Florida State. Obviously the two defenses are built on different pillars but 50% is 50% and if Gonzaga is shooting well from the outside, the game will be a barnburner.
What kind of Zag crowd cam we expect to see on Sunday?
There is obviously a huge disadvantage to playing Syracuse in Buffalo. Everyone knows how well Syracuse fans travel and how passionate they are so it will obviously be a Cuse dominated arena but there will be a solid Gonzaga presence. We're an extraordinarily nervous fanbase in March because of our recent history with collapses so don't expect a whole lot of trash talk but we definitely feel like at some point...we are due for another run. Hopefully this is the year.
Good luck to the Zags and keep an eye on Slipper Still Fits for updates over the next couple days.