The Arizona Wildcats’ non-conference schedule has mostly been devoid of high-level opponents so far, but oh boy does that change Saturday when the No. 6 Gonzaga Bulldogs arrive in McKale Center for one of the most highly-anticipated games in recent memory.
The Zags are 3-6 all-time against Arizona but have have won two straight in this series, including a 91-74 victory last season in the Maui Invitational.
But both 10-1 teams enter the rematch with young, revamped rosters and Arizona has never lost to Gonzaga at home, so it’s expected to be a coin-flip game. KenPom projects Arizona will win 77-74.
We wanted to get more insight on the Zags, so we caught up with Peter Woodburn, managing editor of SlipperStillFits.com, the Gonzaga SB Nation site.
Here’s our Q&A.
AZDS: Gonzaga lost a lot of key players from last season, so what were the expectations coming into this season and how have they lived up to them so far?
PW: This class was the highest-ranked recruiting class in school history, so expectations ran pretty high—maybe a bit too high. The highly touted freshman hasn’t necessarily been in Gonzaga’s wheelhouse, but the Zags got that with Drew Timme, Anton Watson and others. Once Ryan Woolridge came in to fill the black hole at point guard, realistically, with a healthy Killian Tillie, the Zags are bizarrely a potential Elite Eight squad once again.
With all of that in mind, Gonzaga has more or less lived up to it. They went to the Bahamas and got a gutty as all get out win over Oregon (after losing three players to injury the night before) and then followed that up by getting absolutely steamrolled by Michigan, and then followed that up with a road win at Washington. What else can you expect from a team returning less than a quarter of its minutes played from last season? The Zags, when they are on, are one of the better offensive teams in the nation. But they also have so many new faces that the defensive lapses appear with too much frequency. This is a team that should be much better come March.
AZDS: What are Gonzaga’s strengths and weaknesses?
PW: The Zags are tall, and they are one of the better defensive rebounding teams in the nation. As said with the defensive miscues, this has really helped carry the Zags because even if the defense is lacking at times, they can at least limit extra possessions. They are also a rather versatile scoring machine. Filip Petrusev is the Mark Few classic big man—an old-school European player. A lot of the offense runs through him and he has such a nice soft (sometimes too soft) touch around the rim. Then you throw in Killian Tillie, who I would argue is one of the more unique forwards in the entire country, and you have a frontcourt that is rather hard to defend. Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi are legitimate three-point threats, and Ryan Woolridge can go from casually bringing the ball up the court to a full-blown fastbreak in the blink of an eye.
As mentioned before, defensively, the Zags leave a bit to be desired. Petrusev, in particular, has shown struggles playing through contact. The Zags also are not very deep at guard, really only having Woolridge, Ayayi, and Texas A&M transfer Admon Gilder in the backcourt. Kispert can help out occasionally, but the frontcourt is the bread and butter of this squad. Perhaps the biggest weakness of this squad is free-throw shooting. The Zags are garbage at it, especially Woolridge, the starting point guard, who shoots just a shade over 50 percent from the line. Oregon resorted to fouling him late in the game when it was tight, and by some sort of miracle, the Zags shot 80 percent from free throw in that game. Normally, that is not the case.
AZDS: I know Gonzaga hasn’t been healthy this season, so can you take me through what their injury report looks like and how that affects things?
PW: Tillie missed the first four games of the season (and then the first game of the Battle 4 Atlantis) because of knee surgery to “clean things out.” He has looked more than fine lately, so I think we can hopefully call him healthy. When the Zags played Southern Miss in the first game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, Anton Watson suffered an ankle injury that has caused him to miss three games (almost four--he only played nine minutes against UW), Woolridge suffered a minor ankle sprain (he looks like he is back to normal), and Admon Gilder suffered some unknown knee injury (he hasn’t missed any games but he hasn’t looked the same since).
The Zags do have a couple of more freshman bodies to throw out there for spot minutes in Martynas Arlauskas and Pavel Zakharov, but realistically it is an eight-man rotation and one that is already thin at guard. It will have been a full week between UW and Arizona thanks to finals, so hopefully, the Zags are healthy rolling into this contest.
AZDS: What are the keys to the game for the Zags?
PW: Arizona isn’t the best offensive rebounding squad, so the Zags need to silence them on the boards. Gonzaga can’t allow any extra possessions. In a road environment, against a more than capable offense, those are the possessions that can make for a long night. Gonzaga also needs to figure out how to make the interior guys work. Arizona is very good at defending the two-point shot, and much of Gonzaga’s offense rolls through the paint. That is where the real battle for this game is going to take place. The Zags can hit the threes to help compliment the post play, but Petrusev, Tillie, and Timme are going to have to go hard at Chase Jeter and Zeke Nnaji to pull off this road win.
AZDS: The Zags have an extremely balanced team, but is there one or two players who you would consider to be an X-factor?
PW: Joel Ayayi. The sophomore guard from France committed to Gonzaga and arrived last year as super talented but incredibly young and raw. He had a great summer in the FIBA U-19 World Cup, averaging 20.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 3.4 assists. This year, all the writers of our blog have been completely aboard the Ayayi train. He is lighting quick, a great defender, and has the highest box plus/minus on the team. He moved into the starting lineup over Gilder since the injury, and he hasn’t looked back.
AZDS: What is the proper way to pronounce Gonzaga?
PW: It is Gohn-ZAG-a. The rule of thumb is that we are the Zags, not the Zogs.
AZDS: Do Gonzaga fans ever wonder what would have happened had Dan Monson not bailed for Minnesota, leaving Mark Few to run things?
PW: Maybe after too many beers and a two-mile walk home in the bitter Spokane cold. The history of the program, especially leading up to the 1999 run and immediately afterward, is such an interesting piece of college basketball history. Bud Withers, who used to write for The Seattle Times, wrote this book that does the best job of explaining how so many things had to go right for the lightning to strike as it has. As a fanbase though, the only what-ifs we deal with are the ones that end in losses in the NCAA Tournament.
AZDS: Score prediction?
PW: If this is in Spokane, I give it to Gonzaga. But since it isn’t, I have to hand it to Arizona for this game. The Zags showed poise playing in Seattle against the Huskies, but that game also was chock-full of Gonzaga fans. The Spokane faithful travel well, so I’m sure there will be a contingent in Tucson, but this is going to be the most real road environment the Zags have played in this season. I think the teams should keep it pretty close, but I feel that Arizona is going to squeak this one out in the end: 84-80.