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NCAA Tournament opponent Q&A: The Gonzaga Bulldogs

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Get to know the 1-seed in the west

NCAA Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Gonzaga vs Saint Mary’s Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during the Seminoles’ basketball season. For this NCAA Tournament edition of our Q&A series features, we are joined by our friend Peter Woodburn at The Slipper Still Fits to look at a rematch of last year’s Sweet-16 game.

For my answers to their questions, go to their site.

TN: The Zags - even with the hiccup in the conference tourney - have obviously had a successful season to this point. Have there been any good surprises in terms of personnel or team dynamics that you didn’t see coming before the season? How about any disappointments?

TSSF: I don’t think anyone saw Brandon Clarke becoming the player that he is today. The only reason what he is doing on the court isn’t considered crazy is because Zion Williamson is also doing, albeit as a freshman, and just a tad bit better in some areas. But you can easily make the case that Clarke is one of the best, if not the best, player in college basketball. Especially considering the injury to Killian Tillie for much of the year, the reason the Zags have a No. 1 seed rests on Clarke’s shoulders.

As for disappointments, Tillie’s injury issues have been such a bummer to watch. We are all glad he is back in time for the NCAA Tournament, but he has only appeared in 13 games this season.

TN: The possession-length splits for Gonzaga are absurd. Per kenpom.com they have the 6th fastest tempo in the nation on offense, but force longer possessions on defense than 350 teams. What’s that latter number all about? Is it a defensive nut that is particularly hard to crack, or is it teams like Saint Mary’s standing around and dribbling to try and shorten the game?

TSSF: There are two keys to that number, because as you point out, it is a really funny one to look at. A big portion of that comes from WCC play. Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara, Pacific, and San Diego are all teams that just grind out possessions, and that is eight games on the schedule right there.

The other portion of it is that the Zags’ defense has never relied on forcing turnovers. Especially as of late, it has turned into a team effort that denies good looks. The Zags actually have one of the higher TO% they’ve had in years and it still isn’t very high. Gonzaga’s defense tends to force opposing offenses into longer possessions just to try and get a good look.

TN: FSU has held their first two tourney opponents to 20-64 shooting on 2s (31%). For the year, the Zags have the highest 2-pt% of any team in the nation. This seems like a key battle. How will the Zags win it?

TSSF: This is going to be such an interesting battle to watch down low. On Florida State’s side, they have the unenviable task of trying to corral Brandon Clarke, Rui Hachimura, and Killian Tillie down low. On Gonzaga’s side, they have the unenviable task of trying to score down low against FSU. The Zags will win it by shoving the ball down low to Brandon Clarke early and often. He is shooting 71 percent from two overall and 81 percent at the rim. If he gets close enough to the hoop, it is usually game over.

That is where Rui comes into play. Baylor’s apparent defensive game plan was to make Hachimura’s life miserable (they did, he only scored six points) and not worry about anyone else (Clarke had 36). Rui is one of the most savvy and creative forwards in basketball, and he is just as comfortable near the hoop as he is hanging out at the free throw line. FSU will have to be quick on their feet and use their length and athleticism to try and contain two very good forwards.

TN: For the FSU fans in the room who aren’t closet WCC aficionados, the last Gonzaga game they watched was when Florida State torched them in the NCAAT last year. That team didn’t have pogo stick Brandon Clarke, and Killian Tillie was out with a bum hip. What do those two bring to the court?

TSSF: For the casual FSU basketball fan, looking at last year’s game result and thinking, “yeah we got this,” is really an exercise in futility. Last year, Gonzaga didn’t have Clarke (possibly their best player), Tillie (definitely their most versatile player), Hachimura played a season-high 36 minutes in a season in which he was a bench guy averaging 20 minutes, and they didn’t have Geno Crandall, which meant last year Josh Perkins was literally the only point guard on the squad.

We’ve already talked about what Clarke brings to the court, but he is most efficient when Killian Tillie is on the court as well. Against Baylor, Tillie only had two points in 18 minutes, but he had a box plus/minus of 20. Tillie’s ability to shoot the three spaces out the floor so well and allows Clarke to turn into a human wrecking ball down low.

TN: All-time starting 5 for Gonzaga?

TSSF: If we are just talking only college careers (and that clarification is necessary for one of the players), for me it is probably:

Kevin Pangos, Blake Stepp, Adam Morrison, Domantas Sabonis, and Ronny Turiaf

Although it heavily pains me to not put Przemek Karnowski at center cause he is the dude, I was at GU when Ronny played and the memories win out.

TN: How do you see this game playing out, and what is the final score?

TSSF: I think this game is a grinder but I think that Gonzaga is able to pull away in the second half. Despite the popular opinion that the Zags would finish ninth in the ACC or something like that, their offense is the top ranked by KenPom for a good reason, so I’ll say it is 74-68.