By Paul Casey Gotham
Setting: NCAA tournament contenders collide when Chris Mack brings his Xavier Musketeers (7-2) to Spokane, Washington for a battle with Mark Few and the Gonzaga Bulldogs (6-5).
Plot: Atlantic 10 meets the West Coast Conference with tournament resumes on the line.
Sub-plot: The game is the second of four in thirteen days for the Muskies. Xavier knocked off Wake Forest over the weekend. Xavier hosts Albany on Tuesday and Florida, New Year’s Eve. Gonzaga trimmed Baylor on Saturday. The Zags take on Oklahoma State on the 31st.
Background: The match-up is part of the Jesuit Spotlight project using basketball to promote Jesuit education across the United States. Xavier and Gonzaga are two of 28 Jesuit universities in the country.
Flashback: The schools have split a pair of meetings in the past. Gonzaga defeated Xavier in the first round of the 2006 NCAA tournament 79-75. The schools first met in 1960 with Xavier laying claim to an 87-82 triumph.
Coach Few has led Gonzaga to 11 of its 13 NCAA tournament appearances including Sweet Sixteen showings in ’00, ’01, ’06, and ’09. Seven different coaches have led the Musketeers to 21 NCAA tournament appearances including Eight Eight showings in ’04 and ’08.
Foreshadowing: Eight Bulldogs have gone on to play in the National Basketball Association including current players Austin Daye and Ronny Turiaf. Seventeen Musketeers have suited up in the National Basketball Association with Derrick Brown, Jordan Crawford, James Posey and David West holding down current roster spots.
Conflict: Gonzaga scores nearly 79 points per game while giving up 70. Xavier fills it up at a rate of 70 per contest but keeps opponents to 68. The Bulldogs finish 48.7 percent from the field and allow a rate of 42.2 percent. The Muskies hit 43.5 percent and give up 40 percent.
On the surface, Gonzaga earned a big win over a ranked opponent in Baylor. But the Bears have not played much of a schedule and lacked an edge. Baylor came out and used a two-three zone to defend the Zags. Gonzaga took advantage of the comfortable space afforded on the perimeter for the win.
Gonzaga’s Steven Gray left Saturday’s game with back spasms. The 6’5″ shooting guard averages 15 points per game. He leads the Zags in three point attempts (70) and makes (29). Gray will be hard pressed to continue his 41 percent rate from behind the arc with Xavier’s Tu Holloway up in his grill. Holloway will not allow Gray any comfort on the perimeter. Gray will be forced to go off the dribble, and Holloway is the quicker of the two. On the other end, Gray will have his hands full trying to limit Holloway. With Duke’s Kyrie Irving out because of injury, Holloway is the best point guard in the country. His performance Saturday might have been a turning point as the junior from Hempstead, New York accumulated more assists than points. He became a point guard’s point guard distributing to his teammates. Holloway scored five of twelve points late in the game as the Wake Forest defense was forced to extend on his teammates.
Elias Harris was hampered by early injury early in the late. Harris scored 19 in Gonzaga’s loss to Notre Dame. He followed with anther 19-point output against Lewis-Clark State. His best asset is the ability to put the ball on the deck and take his man to the rim. At 6’7″ he creates mis-matches for opposing forwards that have to defend him on the perimeter. Xavier’s Jamel McLean is more than athletic enough to neutralize Harris on the offensive end.
Baylor let Robert Sacre catch the ball in the post all day. The 7′ center is adept and catching and scoring. He has the tendency to put the ball to floor and cause turnovers. Kenny Frease poses a formidable adversary. For the first time this season, Sacre will find an opponent just as big as he. The difference is the Frease can finish around the rim. Sacre spent most of Saturday’s game in foul trouble. Frease scored a career high 22 points against Wake Forest. The emergence of Frease as a scorer could be the missing link for the X-Men. Frease will need to deny Sacre the ball as much as possible and play straight up when the Gonzaga center gets the ball.
Xavier’s Dante Jackson will match-up with Matthis Monninghoff. Monninghoff has a size advantage but that is it. Jackson is accustomed to playing in the post. Mack will go to his bench when needed, and 6’9″ Jeff Robinson will tilt the advantage back to the Muskies.
Mark Lyons will have the responsibility of defending Gonzaga’s point guard, Demetri Goodson. This might be Xavier’s biggest advantage. Lyons is capable is putting immense pressure on the ball. If he forces Gonzaga to start their offense further from the basket, he will neutralize any advantage Sacre might have in the paint.
Both coaches aren’t afraid to go to their benches. Kelly Olynyk, Sam Dower, and Mangisto Arop give the Zags a boost. Robinson, Andrew Taylor, and Jay Canty provide the Muskies will valuable minutes.
Resolution: Xavier’s having to travel cross-country would usually cause problems, but classes are not in session. The Muskies should be able to adjust to the different time zone. With that, Xavier’s defense will make Gonzaga play at an uncomfortable pace. The Muskies have shown the ability to change speeds easily. They can get out and run full court. At the same time, with the ball in Holloway’s hands, he is making decisions as to when Xavier needs to run half-court. Gonzaga’s injury woes will continue to plague them, and Xavier will get an important victory.