Keys to the Game: Gonzaga vs. Duke


Quite possibly the most critical game in the history of Gonzaga basketball will be taking place in the NRG Stadium on Sunday, as the Zags prepare to battle the 1-seed Duke Blue Devils in the Elite Eight.

This matchup is already being talked about as one of the most anticipated games of the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga and Duke are both extremely talented teams that are bound to make for an incredible matchup. Some experts, like the legendary Dick Vitale, have picked the Zags to come out victorious, while other have sided with the Blue Devils. The experts can’t seem to agree, the fans can’t seem to agree – we’re in for a fun game.

In my opinion, both teams have an equally great chance of advancing to the next round. But, if Gonzaga wants to make history and be the first Bulldogs squad to reach the Final Four, here are the keys they’ll need to emphasize on throughout the matchup:

Mar 27, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Justise Winslow (12) reacts after making a three-point basket against the Utah Utes during the second half in the semifinals of the south regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Guarding Justise Winslow: You probably thought the first bullet point would be about that Okafor guy, huh? He’ll be discussed later, but for now, let’s take a look at Duke’s leading scorer in their victory over Utah. Justise Winslow notched a double-double against the Utes by scoring 21 points and grabbing ten rebounds, and he scares the living daylight out of me.

He was absolutely on fire in Duke’s Sweet 16 matchup, but what worries me most is our strategy for stopping him when we’re on the defensive end. Gary Bell Jr., the Zags’ most prominent defender, is four inches shorter than Winslow, and I fear that the Duke forward’s agility and athleticism will be too overwhelming for Kyle Wiltjer.

Byron Wesley seems like the most fitting candidate to take on the job, but even he’s a bit undersized compared to Winslow. Then again, Bell spent time guarding the behemoth centers Jared Uthoff and Aaron White of Iowa in the round of 32, and he was superb in doing so. Is he up to the task of handling a talent like Winslow? Or is Wesley a more fitting candidate while Bell takes on Quinn Cook? Whoever it is, he better be ready to have a career night following Winslow like a magnet, because if Justise can get hot from the floor, the Zags’ chances at victory will be severely diminished.

Controlling the Glass: One of Gonzaga’s biggest X-factors against UCLA was their ability to control the boards. The Bulldogs pulled down 50 rebounds when they faced the Bruins, playing a huge role in the Zags’ win. An effective night on the glass could make a colossal difference against Duke, as the Blue Devils are 53rd in the nation in rebounds per game. As for the Zags? They sit square in second place in rebounds, averaging 27.6 per game.

This is an area I feel the Zags will have a distinct advantage. The Blue Devils are not renowned for their rebounding, but they are athletic, and if they can out-muscle the Zags on the glass, they’ll cause all sorts of problems for the Bulldogs.

Mar 26, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Duke Blue Devils center Jahlil Okafor (15) dunks during practice the day before the semifinals of the south regional of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Stopping Okafor: We all knew it was coming. Jahlil Okafor is arguably the best player in college basketball. He’s going to be a matchup problem for any team in the nation. However, Utah was able to limit Okafor to a measly six points in the Sweet 16. They did so through their excellent use of the double-team; almost every time the ball was in Okafor’s hands, there were two defenders practically on top of him working to force a turnover or timeout.

I think we can expect to see the same thing on Sunday. Can you imagine being constantly double-teamed by someone as athletic as Domantas Sabonis and as massive as Przemek Karnowski? That’s going to be the key to shutting down Okafor – if the Zags can keep the star center from getting any clean looks, they’re going to be in good shape.

The Dome Effect: As we recently discussed, the Dome Effect has had a clear ramification on the Zags’ shooting abilities, much as it did against UCLA, Utah, Duke, and many, many other teams. The Dome Effect is a phenomena that a team’s shooting percentages decrease significantly when playing in a dome or NFL arena, largely due to the vast contrast in atmosphere and peripheral vision for the players.

More from 2015 NCAA Tournament

The Zags, who came into the UCLA game shooting 41% from three, went 3-19 from beyond the arc. The Bruins matched this performance going 3-13, while Duke shot 3-9 from the three point line (all three of them coming from Justise Winslow, by the way). It was atrocious shooting, but these three teams are far from the first ones to experience such poor performances in a NFL stadium.

It’s not going to be an easy task, but if the Zags can get accustomed and comfortable with performing in a setting as colossal as the NRG Stadium and find their top-notch offense, they’ll be unstoppable. However, the same goes for Duke. The way I see it, the first one to find their shooting touch in this dome is the winner.

This is, without a doubt, going to be one of the most entertaining matchups of the tournament. Be on the lookout to see how the Bulldogs handle these keys to the game, and get ready to make some noise Zag fans!