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Then and Now: Arizona vs. Gonzaga

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Will we see another thriller this time around?

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

For the third consecutive year, the Arizona Wildcats and Gonzaga Bulldogs will face off in a matchup of two West Coast powerhouse basketball programs. This will be the second of a home-and-home series. They are also set to face off again for the next three years, making this a key out of conference series. The two teams also met in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, where the Wildcats dominated the Bulldogs by a score of 84-61. Both teams head into this year’s game with players who got a taste of this matchup from last year, as well as some new faces who will experience this intense environment for the first time.

Let’s look back at last year’s meeting. If it was any indication, we all should expect a thrilling game this time around. The Wildcats were ranked third in the country, while the Zags ranked ninth heading into the McKale Center on December 6th. Both teams were undefeated and looking to establish themselves as early season favorites.

Gonzaga featured a very experienced lineup starting with their backcourt combo of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. Pangos and Bell were very reliable guards that were able to initiate the offense and did not turn the ball over frequently. Another strength of the Zags was the strong play of their frontcourt players: Przemek Karnowski, Kyle Wiltjer, and Domantas Sabonis. Each player gives Gonzaga the ability to play with different lineups while allowing them to play at the same pace.

Arizona countered Gonzaga’s skilled backcourt with the tough and gritty guards T.J. McConnell and Gabe York. In addition, Arizona’s frontcourt matched up very well against their frontcourt with Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley, Stanley Johnson, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Gonzaga is known to play a more half court-oriented style of play under head coach Mark Few, who is one of the longest-tenured coaches in college basketball. With the combination of experience and efficiency that the Zags exhibit, the Wildcats defense needed to make it tough for the their backcourt to get into their offense. Offensively, the Wildcats needed to use their size and athleticism to attack the rim off the dribble and hopefully get Gonzaga's big men in foul trouble and score some easy points at the line.

Throughout the game, we saw some intriguing one-on-one matchups. The first matchup was between point guards McConnell and Pangos. Arizona head coach Sean Miller needed to make things tough for Pangos by making him work his way up the floor with as much resistance as possible. At times, we even saw Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on Pangos to bother him with his length.

Another key matchup was the big man battle of the Skis, Kaleb Tarczewski and Przemek Karnowski. Karnowski is a focal point of the Gonzaga offense as they primarily play with high-low sets to get the ball in the post. Tarczewski’s primary responsibility was to push Karnowski off his spot and clear the boards to prevent their big men from picking up second-chance points.

The first half of the game was a defensive battle. Both teams struggled to get anything going offensively as the score at the half was tied at 27. More of the same continued in the second half as both sides tried to get easy buckets off their defense. Gonzaga was able to manage a small lead with about six minutes left, but Stanley Johnson knocked down a three and two free throws in a span 1:15 to close that lead down. Gonzaga pushed for another lead late, however, Arizona was able to stick around with a strong finish from Brandon Ashley, who scored six of his 14 points in the final three minutes.

As it was throughout the game, defense was the key down the stretch as the Wildcats held Gonzaga to two points in the final four minutes. Forty minutes was not enough as overtime was needed to settle the game. Somehow, Arizona was able to turn up their defense even more by holding Gonzaga to three points, which came off a heavily-contested three from Pangos. Late in the overtime session, the Wildcats had a three point lead, but committed the cardinal sin of fouling Byron Wesley on a three point attempt. Luckily, Wesley missed all three free throws, allowing Arizona to come away with the victory.

Karnowski was held to ten points and 11 rebounds, and Kyle Wiltjer scored 15 points while securing seven rebounds. The Gonzaga backcourt was held in check as Kevin Pangos only tallied eight points with six assists. Gary Bell Jr. was mostly ineffective with his 12 points and three rebounds. Arizona’s frontcourt was able to counter with Kaleb Tarczewski’s 11 points and seven rebounds along with 14 points and five rebounds from Brandon Ashley. Stanley Johnson notched 11 points and six rebounds. T.J. McConnell scored 12 points, including some key buckets in overtime along with three steals.

Now let’s focus on this weekend’s game. This time around, the Wildcats will travel to Spokane, Washington. There will be many familiar faces on both teams that got a taste of this matchup from last year. For the Zags, they return all three key frontcourt players (Karnowski, Wiltjer, and Sabonis).  Also, starting forward Kyle Dranginis received playing time in last year’s game.

The difference in this year’s team comes in their backcourt with guards Josh Perkins and Eric McClellan. The question heading into this season for the Zags is can Perkins take this team to the next level, in terms of making a deep NCAA tournament run?

For Arizona, starters Gabe York and Kaleb Tarczewski, if he's able to play, are expected to shoulder a heavy load on both ends of the floor. Elliott Pitts, Dusan Ristic, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright sparingly played in last year's installment. The question that needs to be brought up is whether or not players like Ryan Anderson, Dusan Ristic, and Mark Tollefsen can duplicate the results from last year’s frontcourt and minimize Gonzaga’s frontcourt threats.

Scouting Report

Przemek Karnowski

  • good low post scorer with a quick release
  • fights for position down low on the block
  • very patient and a willing passer on the block and on top of the key

Kyle Wiltjer

  • can score from anywhere on the court, has great range with a smooth shooting stroke
  • likes to post up and shoot over defenders with his length
  • utilizes shot fake to evade defenders

Domantas Sabonis

  • very active on both ends of the floor, especially rebounding the ball
  • likes to run the floor in transition to get easy baskets
  • can be overly aggressive which can lead him into foul trouble

Josh Perkins

  • very capable passer and has great awareness and feel
  • has good shooting stroke from deep
  • can be turnover prone with the ball

Heading into this weekend’s game, it will be intriguing to see how Sean Miller plans to matchup against the frontcourt of Gonzaga. This will definitely be dictated by the health of Kaleb Tarczewski. If he is unable to go, Ryan Anderson and Dusan Ristic must bring their 'A' games, as it would be expected that Gonzaga will be looking to exploit the Wildcats down low. I expect Miller to mix-and-match his lineups to keep Gonzaga off balance as much as possible. Does this year’s Arizona roster have enough versatility that last year’s team had to contend? It could be a tall order as the Wildcats will have to depend heavily on their bench.

As for the backcourt, the Wildcats can not lose sight of Josh Perkins. If he is able to get others involved while knocking down a few shots from the outside, Gonzaga’s offense is expected to score much more this time around. Offensively, the Wildcats need more from their guard play. The backcourt must produce and lift the burden off of Ryan Anderson, who has been the primary scorer the past few games. Guards Allonzo Trier, Gabe York, and Kadeem Allen need to bounce back after struggling to get anything going offensively in the Wooden Legacy tournament.

The Zags are coming off a disappointing finish in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament where they lost in the semifinals to Texas A&M. They were able to salvage a third place finish by defeating UConn. The Wildcats are also coming off a rough result in the DirecTV Wooden Legacy tournament with their loss to Providence.

The game is on ESPN Saturday afternoon with a tip-off at 3:15 ET.