In what looks to be one of the better non-conference match-ups of No. 10 Gonzaga’s season, the Bulldogs will fly to the Big Apple to take on the Bulldogs of Georgia, coached by Mark Fox, in the NIT Conference semifinals.
GU has proven to be an excellent team at home with only eight losses since the McCarthey Athletic Center opened its doors in 2004. Backed by a start where the team has yet to really be tested, since it is a neutral site, New York and MSG will provide that medium. The Zags have a tough non-conference road schedule in particular this season and will receive a Thanksgiving Eve test.
Gonzaga (4-0) will face an SEC opponent in Georgia (3-1) that began its season with a tough loss to Georgia Tech. Gonzaga looks to continue its early season tirade, where the first four games have been won by an average margin of victory of 42 points even, but will do so against an experienced UGA squad that returns some firepower from last year’s run-of-the-mill NIT squad.
So who are these Georgia guys anyway?
UGA returns four key contributors to a team that was a wildly mediocre 20-14 and lost in the second round of the NIT last spring. Earlier this Fall, West Coast Convo’s Sam Falcone wrote a killer preview of the matchup between the Bulldogs of Gonzaga and Georgia that gives analysis of the returning team.
Through four games UGA is led by forward Marcus Thornton, averaging 14.0 points and 7.8 rebounds and wing Nemanja Djurisic who has tallied 13.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. UGA has coasted to rather easy wins over Stony Brook, Troy and Florida Atlantic after dropping its first game 80-73 to in-state rival Georgia Tech.
What to watch for…
1. Kyle Wiltjer vs. Marcus Thornton
Wiltjer at six-foot-10-inches has a height advantage on the six-foot-eight Thornton, but the two are around the same weight and Thornton is a better inside player. I believe the number one defensive matchup issue for the Zags is a big, elite, back-to-the-basket threat at the power forward position sized up against Kyle Wiltjer. I do not consider Thornton elite, but he is UGA’s no. 1 scoring option and leads the team in rebounds. Despite looking good early, he is still the weak link defensively for this team. That said, I believe Sabonis is already a better defensive player than Wiltjer just solely because he is stronger and 100x more aggressive on both sides of the ball. Inversely, watching Wiltjer pull Thornton out to the perimeter will free up the inside, which will clear up space for Karnowki, or a cutting Wesley who is so gifted attacking the rim.
2. Kevin Pangos turnover tracker
Averaging 5.8 assists per game, the floor general has 23 assists on the season and has yet to turn the ball over STILL through four games, so keep an eye out for that little tidbit.
3. Beautiful ball-movement
Through four games Gonzaga is third out of Division I teams in sharing the ball with 22.8 assists per game. There has been a new player to break out scoring every game, so the offense is geared to find the hot hand. Every player in the starting lineup and in the rotation can pass the ball and more importantly, look to do so in the offense. The point where that becomes an X-factor is when the bigs share the ball with the double, which Wiltjer, Karnowski and Sabonis have made themselves a threat.
My crystal ball…
Something that team have not been able to do against Gonzaga is rebuttal after the Zags starting off hot. GU has been able to control the game with a comfortable lead early on and one way to do that would be to respond to the hot early shooting with a run of its own but Georgia does not have enough front court firepower or depth to match up with the Zags. Gonzaga is shooting an unreal 56.1 percent from the field, which is currently 9th in the country, but do not expect that high level accuracy to continue in Madison Square Garden (maybe just a little bigger than McCarthey). the Zags move the ball well, but don’t play as well defensively as they did against SMU and let Thornton go to work. That said, I say Gonzaga takes the game by 10.