The Arizona Wildcats travel to Spokane to take on the No. 13 Gonzaga Bulldogs on Saturday. Arizona fans should be familiar with Gonzaga, as Arizona faced them last year in McKale Center, pulling out a 66-63 overtime victory, and knocking the Bulldogs out of the NCAA Tournament in 2014 with an 84-61 win.
But it's a new season, and as we're all well aware, teams certainly don't stay the same from one year to the next. We wanted to get an inside look as to what to expect this weekend, so we went straight to the source. Our friend Peter Woodburn, site manager of SB Nation's own Gonzaga site Slipper Still Fits, was kind enough to give us the goods on the Bulldogs. Thanks, Peter!
1. Gonzaga has put some of its best teams on the floor recently, earning a 1-seed in 2013 and making the Elite 8 last year, losing only to the eventual champion Duke Blue Devils. With the sustained success over the past two decades, what kind of expectations surround this program for 2015 - 2016? Is this the year we see that elusive Final Four breakthrough?
Peter: The hype built real quick in the offseason this year when it was clear that all three big men (Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer) were all coming back. Then there was that talk of playing all three at once and how it would be such a defensive nightmare. And just like that, even the most stalwart, down to Earth fans, had to jump on the hype train. That is just what happens when people say "best frontcourt in America hands down." The thing is, this team also lost Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. to graduation, and that is like a human being losing both legs and being told to go run a marathon tomorrow.
The Zags are a good team. But they also are a team that needs time to gel. Eric McClellan has spent less than a full season at GU, Josh Perkins had his jaw obliterated last season and is essentially a freshman, and Silas Melson saw limited time last season. All three players, especially Perkins and Melson, have a high upside. All three players, especially Perkins and Melson, have been rather inconsistent as the season has started. For Gonzaga to make the Final Four, the backcourt needs to figure it out. Having a great frontcourt will help the Zags go deep into the tournament, but the guards are what will make it or break it.
So to answer the question: as easily as I can see the Zags making the Final Four this season, I can also see them losing in the second round. That is how tough it is right now to get the right pulse on this team.
2. Arizona and Gonzaga have seen their fair share of one another over the past few years, and the outcomes haven't been too favorable to the Bulldogs. How is Arizona viewed in Gonzaga circles? Is there any bad blood harbored in Spokane towards the Wildcats?
Peter: I don't think there is much bad blood towards Arizona. Last season's game was a nail biter and was on the road. That double OT win over the Zags in the 2003 NCAA Tournament stung, but not too bad considering Arizona was a No. 1 seed and Gonzaga was just a No. 9. Generally speaking, when Gonzaga has met up against Arizona, Arizona has been expected to thrash them, and they usually have. But considering Gonzaga has only beaten Arizona once (when the Wildcats were ranked), it would be nice to have a feather in the cap.
3. This team had to replace a huge part of its production and leadership this year after losing seniors Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, Jr., and Byron Wesley to graduation. Who has stepped in to pick up where they left off, and what new name should Arizona fans be aware of?
Peter: Losing Pangos and Bell was a huge hit. Those two were the backcourt of GU for four years and it seems like forever ago when they were freshman. The front court is still doing its thing. Sabonis is good for a double-double any night. Karnowski is a huge man that makes driving to the hoop a lot harder than it should be. Wiltjer will stretch the defense to the point of breaking.
But the backcourt? That is more of a toss-up. No one thought any of our players were going to come in and immediately replicate Pangos' production, but the issue is that between McClellan, Melson and Perkins. None of those players can consistently put it together. When McClellan has a good game, Perkins fouls a ton and never sees the court. When Perkins has a good game, Melson goes 0-10 from the floor and essentially negates that strong play.
So realistically, the most impactful name the Wildcats should be aware of is Kyle Dranginis. Dranginis is the senior in the backcourt and is the calming hand. He is also going to be on every 2016 All Glue Guy Team list by the end of the season. Right now, he averages 6.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game. Nothing he does is flashy, but he will stuff that stat box, and does it in a very efficient way.
4. I couldn't believe this was actually a point of contention, but is there really a prevailing sentiment that Mark Few isn't a good coach? Or is the whopping 61 likes on this page a better indicator of how Gonzaga fans really feel about the coaching situation?
Peter: There is a lot of frustration in the Gonzaga circles about the team's inability to make the Elite Eight since they first did back in 1999. There is a lot of criticism about Mark Few's ability to draw up plays out of timeouts. But all of it points to a demanding fanbase that sometimes borders on insanity. Yes, not making it to a Final Four despite 15+ years of chances is frustrating, but it isn't like teams just waltz into the finals of the NCAA Tournament like it is no big deal. Again, that said, there is a fair share of blame that can fall on his shoulders.
But realistically, to say he isn't a good coach is insane. Few has a higher win percentage as a coach than John Wooden. You can say blah blah blah WCC is a bad conference, but he has won approximately 81 percent of his games during his 17-year career. To get numbers like that, you have to be a good coach.
5. Give us your predictions for how this one turns out.
Peter: This will be a tight game. Gonzaga's backcourt has made it really hard to predict how the team will perform against quality opponents. They narrowly lost to a tough Texas A&M squad in the Bahamas. Then they followed it up by nearly coughing up a 21-point lead to UConn. Still, Arizona is rolling into The Kennel, where Gonzaga is 149-9 since it opened. The place will be deafening, and that home court advantage will be just enough for GU to squeak by.
Gonzaga 65, Arizona 60
Thanks again to Peter for his time. Be sure to visit Slipper Still Fits for information and coverage of the Gonzaga Bulldogs, and follow Peter on Twitter.