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Ohio State is going to have to play nearly perfectly to knock off Gonzaga

Our friends from the ‘The Slipper Still Fits’ blog preview the team standing between the Buckeyes and the Sweet 16.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-UNCG vs Gonzaga Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

The calendar had already flipped to Friday, Nov. 24 in Columbus, but it was still Thanksgiving in Portland, Ore. Unfortunately, the Ohio State Buckeyes had little to be thankful for after their 86-59 shellacking at the hands of the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the PK80 Invitational.

Eventual Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop was held to just seven points on 2-for-7 shooting, and the Zags shot 58.5 percent from the field compared to OSU’s measly 34.5. Though that game was still in the early going for first-year head coach Chris Holtmann and his rag-tag collection of Buckeyes, it should still give Ohio State fans plenty of concern heading into the second round of the NCAA Tournament. For, even though OSU has gotten markedly better since late November, so have the Bulldogs.

To preview Saturday’s game, we spoke to our friend Peter Woodburn from SBNation’s Gonzaga blog The Slipper Still Fits, and while he acknowledges his inherent bias, he also paints a fairly bleak picture for what awaits the Buckeyes in Boise, Idaho tomorrow.

The Bucks and the Zags will tip off at 7:45 p.m. ET on Saturday from the Taco Bell Arena, and the game will be broadcast on CBS. The winner will head to next week’s Sweet Sixteen.

We also talked about the Ohio State side of the matchup for The Slipper Still Fits, if you want to check that out as well.

LGHL: Gonzaga has been one of the best scoring teams in the country this season, but on Thursday, UNC Greensboro held them to their lowest output of the year. Was that more of a case of being rusty, or something the Spartans specifically did?

TSSF: I think part of that is rust, I think the other part of it is UNC Greensboro has a legitimate top 30 defense. They also play with a unique 1-2-2 press, which pretty much meant that each time Gonzaga was finally getting the offense started, they only had 15-18 seconds left on the shot clock. It took the Zags a bit of time to get through that, and seemingly, by halftime, everything was good.

But then the shots just ceased falling. It is pretty easy to point out the abysmal three point (5 of 23) and free throw shooting (13 of 25). Credit to UNCG, because they hit some crazy big shots and applied just enough pressure to put Gonzaga on the brink. One thing Gonzaga has done well this season is just grind out games, however. And this is a team that was in the national title game last year, and 4/5 of the starting lineup was a key part of that team as well. The Zags have dug deep to win multiple games this season, and that is what they had to do. UNCG came in with a specific game plan, and they executed it well. Hopefully, the Zags got the wake up call they need.

LGHL: In Thursday’s game, UNCG was able to shut down some of Gonzaga’s best offensive weapons— Killian Tillie, Rui Hachimura, and Silas Nelson combined for just 10 points. However, Gonzaga was still able to find a way to win. Is there a key to shutting down the team as a whole, or do opponents just have to pick their proverbial poison and hope for the best?

TSSF: It is so impossible to shut down Gonzaga, because as you note, three of their players did rather little on the offensive end. Still, in the end, you have Josh Perkins with 16 points, Zach Norvell with 15 (and the game winning three), and Johnathan Williams with 19. The Zags are one of the few teams with five players averaging at least 10 points, and if you add in Silas Melson (who has 9.5 points per game), then that list shrinks even more.

The teams that have defeated the Zags this year have either shot the roof off the arena (Florida), played their ass off and squeaked away (Saint Mary’s), watched as GU played the worst game of the season (San Diego State), or just walloped them because they’ll probably win the NCAA championship (Villanova). There is no real recipe to beating Gonzaga, because no matter how many players you shut down, they have just as many waiting on the ropes to go off for 20 points.

LGHL: The last time that the Buckeyes and Bulldogs squared off, it was a blowout victory for the Zags in the PK80 Tournament. How has the team grown and changed since that November matchup?

TSSF: This Gonzaga team has come together in a way that I’m not sure a lot of people were expecting, considering what they lost from last season. Few people at the beginning of the season would’ve pegged this squad to only lose four games on the year, even in a down WCC. The impressive thing about Gonzaga is their ability to just hunker down and, for the most part, do what it takes to win. They don’t exactly do it cleanly or beautifully, but this squad has figured out how to do exactly what they need to do to win (sometimes not any more than that).

Gonzaga plays complete team basketball on both the offensive and defensive end. They don’t force a lot of turnovers, they just make sure there is a hand in the face on every shot. They have a few shoot-first players (looking in your direction Zach Norvell), but for the most part they will make the extra pass to get the better shot. There isn’t a weak cog on this team, and at the same time, there isn’t a player that is the key to making it all work either.

LGHL: Gonzaga is a frighteningly balanced team, with five players averaging double-figures (and another at 9.5 per game). What allows this team to be as balanced as it is?

TSSF: A lot of it starts with the guards. Josh Perkins is more of a pass first point guard, and Silas Melson is more of the defensive specialist. Both are willing to take their three point shots, and Melson especially will drive to the hoop at a moment’s notice. Neither player is going to hog the possession, however. That opens it up for the rest of the offense, especially Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie down low, to get their looks. When Rui Hachimura comes off the bench, you immediately get an offensive spark. He is the most dynamic scorer on the squad, and offense comes rather effortlessly to him. It is a full-team effort for the Zags, and it is what makes them difficult to defend. You can lock down one or two players in a game, but it is hard to lock down five or six.

LGHL: Finally, what do you think is going to happen in the game on Saturday?

TSSF: Honestly, between the results of both of our two games, I have no freaking idea. The Zags entered the NCAA Tournament playing some of the best basketball of the season, and then they almost got taken out by the No. 13 seed. If South Dakota State doesn’t foul on those consecutive three point shots towards the end of the game, this story might not even go up as well. I guess that is the beauty of March Madness, or something.

I think that Gonzaga gets the jitters out and is able to advance. I also write for the Gonzaga blog so I am contractually obliged to say such things. Gonzaga is such a balanced team, and I highly doubt the Zags shoot as poorly from three point range and the free throw line again. On top of it all, the game is in Boise, Idaho, which isn’t that far of a drive from Spokane. I would expect it to be a pro-Gonzaga crowd, especially because with the No. 4 vs. No. 5, you don’t have a lot of those underdog bandwagon hoppers.