A battle of two ranked teams will take place at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles on Saturday afternoon.
While these two schools have played each other in each of the past three seasons — with the Wildcats winning all three matchups — both squads have faced significant roster turnover, so there still isn’t a whole lot of familiarity.
Of course, we are already familiar with Arizona, but we wanted to know more about Gonzaga, so we asked our friends at The Slipper Still Fits — the Gonzaga SB Nation blog — for more info on the Zags.
Here is what managing editor Peter Woodburn had to say:
What are Gonzaga's strengths and weaknesses?
Gonzaga’s strength this season is their overall balance combined with the depth of their bench. They start Przemek Karnowski and Johnathan Williams down low, and their first calls to the bench are freshmen Zach Collins and Killian Tillie. On most other squads, Collins would be a full-fledged starter.
In the backcourt, they have a dual point-guard tandem in Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins. Jordan Mathews fulfills the 3-point shooting wing threat, and Silas Melson is off the bench to shut down premier guards. For the first time in a long, long while, Mark Few has five players to start and the correct pieces to full into the jigsaw as the game goes.
The main weakness right now is chemistry. That rarely is an issue at Gonzaga because we don’t tend to deal with people leaving for the draft early, but last season the Zags lost Kyle Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis, Eric McClellan, and Kyle Dranginis. That was a huge chunk of the offense. There are eight new faces on this team, and at times, the lapses in continuity have shown.
The Zags won the AdvoCare Invitational over Thanksgiving with impressive wins over Florida and Iowa State. But in each game they played out of their minds for one half, and then laid an egg in the second half. Consistency and chemistry is the big issue right now, but come March, that shouldn’t be a problem.
What is different about this Gonzaga team from the ones we've seen over the last year or two?
This is one of the most athletic teams the Zags have had in probably forever. Gonzaga is always good, but much of their success isn’t predicated on guys that are long or quick. That is probably why you can point to the immense success of point guards like Kevin Pangos and Matt Bouldin in Europe, but minimal success in the NBA.
This season it is different.
Collins is one of the highest-rated recruits to ever come to the program, and he is playing every bit the All-American he was. Williams-Goss, Perkins, and Melson are all big guards. Karnowski is still the Gonzaga player of old, more rooted in solid fundamentals and what not, but this team has the ability to keep up with virtually any other team in the nation. Previously, that wasn’t the case.
Who are the team's key players and how are Pac-12 transfers Nigel Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews playing?
The key players for the Zags are sophomore guard Josh Perkins and senior center Przemek Karnowski. Karnowski really is the anchor of this team, and seeing him play at all this season is a dream come true considering his back surgery last season left doctors wondering if he would ever play ball again. He is one of the best passing big men in the nation and absolutely abuses double teams by constantly finding the right man. He is huge and lumbering, so a lot of what he is doing isn’t going to jump out, but he is one of the smoother players in college. Especially for this game, the battle down low is going to be a lot of fun to watch.
Perkins is the other big name on the team. He has emerged as one of the best long-range shooters on the squad, shooting 53.1 percent so far on the season. He is also still susceptible to some really rage-inducing, bone-headed passes into the nether regions of the world.
As for Williams-Goss and Mathews, both have been solid additions to the team. Williams-Goss’ offensive numbers look a bit depressed this season, but that is also because the Zags have other scoring options, unlike his time at Washington. He has really been able to open up his game, and although he can score, he doesn’t take the game over anymore. Mathews started out incredibly hot, dropping 17 points on San Diego State and hitting 5-of-7 from three-point range in the game. Since then, he has cooled off more than anyone would like, hitting just 28.9 percent from the floor over his last five games.
Is this team's early success a surprise at all? And where do you see them finishing at the end of the year?
Not at all. Everyone knew on paper that this team was one of the better teams in the nation, but on paper doesn’t always translate to on court. We’ve seen some hiccups. Against Iowa State the Zags nearly coughed up an 18 point lead, and against Florida they put together one of the worst first halves in college basketball this season. But at the end of the day, a win is a win.
And the scary thing is, Gonzaga will only get better. A lot of the issues are coming from lack of playing time together, and you can see the connections that are starting to get made. Collins and Tillie play fantastically with each other. Karnowski and Williams have been operating on the same wavelength for a few games. By the end of the year, Gonzaga is legitimately a Final Four threat. Granted, as we all know, that involves a lot of luck/seeding/blah blah blah tournament stuff, but it isn’t hyperbolic to put the Zags there for the first time in school history.
What do you think when you see "Arizona" on the schedule?
I get absolutely stoked. Arizona is the premier program on the West Coast and I’d like to think that Gonzaga is premier program No. 2. I want Mark Few and Sean Miller to sign a lifetime contract for this game to happen year in and year out. For Gonzaga specifically, Arizona is a great opportunity to make a statement for a resume-boosting win. If the game ends in a loss, it is perfect film to take a look at a well-coached, highly athletic team and try and figure out what went wrong.
Normally, since Arizona has won so often between the two schools, I’d just pick Arizona grumpily and say until I am proven wrong by my miserable Zags. However, Arizona is just too beat up, especially with the latest injury. Gonzaga is operating at full health right now. I think it’ll be a close game, but I think the Zags are going to control it for much of the afternoon.
Gonzaga 80, Arizona 74.
We also answered their questions about Arizona basketball here, if you want to check that out.
Saturday’s game is set to start at 3:30 p.m. MST and it will be televised on ESPN.