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Syracuse vs. Gonzaga: Sweet 16 Q&A With The Slipper Still Fits

Want to learn more about the Zags? We asked a real-life fan!

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The Syracuse Orange and Gonzaga Bulldogs tip-off in the Sweet 16 on Friday night. Since we don't play the Zags all that often, it's understandable that we may need to learn more about them before the game starts.

Luckily, we got to talk to Peter Woodburn, from SB Nation's Gonzaga blog, The Slipper Still Fits. Peter's a real, live Zags fan and he was able to tell us everything we need to know about the team and how they got here. We answered some questions over there as well if you want to check those out.

Going into the conference tournaments, Gonzaga was seen as a bubble team (like Syracuse), and now they're in the Sweet 16 (also like Syracuse). Is this strange for Zags fans, or just par for the course?

Overall, this year has been a strange one. The Zags started out the year ranked No. 9 in the AP preseason poll and then had to win the WCC Tournament as the only realistic path to the NCAA Tournament. Not exactly what everyone had in mind.

At the same time, the Zags were playing pretty well to close out the season. Their No. 11 seed is totally justified by looking at their overall resume, which was quite thin. But this team was always on the verge of something better--they lost their first five games by a combined 15 points. So are we surprised that the Zags are in the Sweet 16 again? Not exactly. But I think for a lot of people just making the tournament and keeping that streak alive was the most important thing. Any wins that have come so far are just the icing on the cake.

The Bulldogs are a quality team, but what they did to Utah -- and how they did it -- was wholly unexpected. What went so right for Gonzaga in the dominating win?

One thing that has shifted for Gonzaga in the past couple of years is the team has an actual focus on defense. Even with the loss to Przemek Karnowski earlier this year, these Bulldogs play quality defense for forty minutes. They don’t force a lot of turnovers and they don’t make a lot of flashy plays. The defense is just 40 minutes of hassle and clogging passing lanes.

So when the offense gets going, the team starts to look like they can beat anyone. Even if you were expecting Gonzaga to beat Utah, I don’t think anyone expected them to beat Utah as soundly as they did. At the same time, that was the showing of the potential that has always lurked around this season. Gonzaga has just always struggled to piece together 40 full minutes of basketball, and against Utah they finally did.

Gonzaga has a lot of strength in the middle, leaning heavily on the talent of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis. Is there an effective way to defend either/both? And how do you get past them defensively?

It is pretty much impossible to defend both Wiltjer and Domas at the same time because both are such different players. Wiltjer likes to lurk around the outside where he hits threes with the best of ‘em. At the same time, Wiltjer also has great footwork in his postgame, and although it looks like his wonky shots have no business going in near the hoop, they go in. Wiltjer is still human, however. He is slow to recognize double teams sometimes, so if he gets fed the ball away from the hoop, you can double-team him and watch him try to force his way through it. Often times, this ends up in a turnover. Other than that, realistically, all you can hope is that he has a bad shooting night. He is as skilled of a shooter as Gonzaga has ever had, and his height advantage makes it so hard for opposing players to put a hand in his face.

Defending Sabonis is equally hard, because Sabonis is a well-oiled machine down low. He is the sparkplug of this team, and will fight tooth and nail to get the ball into the hoop in the post. Sabonis isn’t as good with high post moves, so he needs to be fed the ball much closer to the hoop. However, he is crafty, and although he isn’t the fastest player, he is a smart player. He always gets great post positioning, and all you can do is try and fight him for that space. That said, sometimes, Sabonis fights a bit too hard. His biggest downfall is his penchant for dumb fouls, and the easiest way to defend Sabonis is when he is on the bench after he picks up his third foul in the first half.

It seems your guards, on the other hand, largely stay out of the way. Is there anything they do really well that might not be caught in the stat line?

The guards for Gonzaga are generally afterthoughts, mainly because they struggled so much at the beginning of the season. That said, they all have their perks. Eric McClellan was the WCC Defensive Player of the Year. He is lightning fast and is the Zags most tenacious defender. He loves to drive to the rim, and his quickness is something that can really take opponents by surprise. Josh Perkins is a fearless competitor with a great jump shot. His stats say he only shot 37.7 percent from beyond the arc this year, but his start to the season was downright wretched. In conference play, he hit 46.3 percent from long range. Finally, Kyle Dranginis is the all around glue-guy. He is that guy that does everything well that box scores can’t say very much about. Technically, Dranginis has the highest ORtg on the team…

Syracuse's defense has really clamped down on opponents through two NCAA Tournament games. What concerns you about the Orange's ability to stop offenses in their tracks?

Pretty much everything. Gonzaga’s offense has some real star potential, but the issue has always been having it all come together in one game. There are plenty of games where Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer scored a combined 60 points only to have the rest of the team barely muster 10. This isn’t the scoring juggernauts of previous Gonzaga teams. Some of the pieces are there, and other pieces need another year of seasoning.

Obviously, the big question will be how the Zags battle that zone defense Syracuse apparently uses. They have the tools to make things difficult for Syracuse, but no one is quite sure if the team knows how to properly use those tools.

Any one player, or aspect of Syracuse's game, that concerns you more than others?

Outside of the zone defense, it is probably Michael Gbinije. The Zags tend to struggle with those really athletic players, especially one that can hit the three. It is a different beast in the WCC, because the quality of opponents day in and day out is definitely lower. But the biggest difference is that athleticism. Teams like Saint Mary’s and BYU are known for overall solid team ball, not necessarily for individuals’ raw potential.

Can we take any lessons (on either side) from the last time these two teams played back in the 2010 NCAA Tournament?

Bragging rights, yes. Lessons, no. That Syracuse team was just so much better than the Gonzaga on all aspects of the ball that the game was never going to be close. I didn’t even bother making a bet with my friend from Syracuse for the game I was that convinced.

Where does this Gonzaga team rank compared to all the tournament squads that came before them?

There is just something that is so much more exciting about being a lower-seeded team and rolling through opponents. Maybe that is because that is how Gonzaga got placed on the map, and for all of their "high profile" choke jobs in the NCAA Tournament, this team has always excelled with the chip on its shoulder. As I said earlier, one month ago, most everyone in Zagnation thought the team was DOA after the loss at home, on Senior Night, to Saint Mary’s. Then we got to watch it again in that HBO special. Life was pretty much over.

But this team has made something out of virtually nothing, and it has been exhilarating to watch. Sometimes, it just takes a bit of time to realize your potential. Gonzaga is playing the best basketball of its life and the exact right time. Each of these wins has been more delicious than the rest, and it isn’t crazy to think that there is a run to the Final Four in this team. For a school that has never been there, that is a lot of fun to think about.

If Gonzaga wins, their ceiling is _____. If Syracuse wins, theirs is _____.

Man, this year has been so nuts. The ceiling is probably back-to-back national championships. Who the hell can even predict anything.

Prediction time: Who wins and how does it happen?

Oh I’ll predict that. In my thoroughly unbiased opinion, Gonzaga wins. It’ll be a close game, but I think Syracuse’s offense will have a hard time punching through Gonzaga’s defense. The Orange just don’t have enough to make it work in case one of Gbinijie, Richardson, Cooney or Lydon struggles. Remember, this is a Gonzaga team that took Isaiah Whitehead, everyone’s favorite "this is the guard you gotta watch" and held him to 10 points. Then they took Jakob Poeltl and held him to five points. Syracuse is playing good ball, but Gonzaga is playing better.


Thanks again for taking the time out there, Peter. Be sure to follow him on Twitter, and play nice if you wander over to The Slipper Still Fits.