Ken Bone and the Washington State Cougars are opening the non-conference schedule with what is most likely their most difficult test before conference play begins: A trip 75 miles north to the hostile atmosphere of the Kennel and a nationally-ranked Gonzaga squad. The game will tip off at 9pm on the WWL as part of ESPN's all-day kickoff to the College Basketball season (the greatest season of them all). The Zags will no doubt be looking for revenge after the beatdown they were handed in Pullman a season ago. This a huge game for the Gonzaga students and they will be loud and rowdy.
There are more than a few questions marks surrounding the Cougs headed into this game. Starting point guard Reggie Moore is limited due to a groin injury, top reserve Faisal Aden is recovering from a concussion, and starting forward Abe Lodwick is most likely out with his foot in a boot. This is definitely not ideal, and the Cougars are a longshot to win this one. KenPom.com predicts the score at 76-65, with 82% confidence that Gonzaga will come out on top.
After the jump, we'll take a look at the four factors for offense and defense. For those of you that are new those would be shooting, rebounding, turnovers, and free throw rate - the four most important factors in winning (shooting is usually the most important). I'm not sure where floor burns land on the list.OFFENSE
Gonzaga opened up the season against Eastern Washington building a brick wall in the McCarthey Athletic Center. No word yet on whether or not the wall will be removed come game time.
The Zags put up an abysmal effective field goal percentage (40.2%) against the Eagles, especially when considering they were playing a thoroughly overmatched opponent. Gonzaga didn't shoot many threes, and was only able to hit on 42.2% of their two-point attempts. This is highlighted by their big man, Robert Sacre, who hit just 4 of 9 field goal attempts inside the arc.
It is pretty well known that Sacre has a difficult time finishing if given any sort of bother. Last year, despite the fact that he is 7-feet tall and stronger than most anyone he would face in the WCC, he managed only a 48.8 eFG%. It's not really an issue of skill or touch, as Sacre is a very good free throw shooter, he just seems to shy away from contact and play like someone much smaller than himself. WSU played solid post defense against him last season and he was very limited. Hopefully Brock Motum and company can do the same tonight.
Outside of Sacre, the other important guy who is going to take a high percentage of the shots is Elias Harris. Harris is a lengthy post-wing hybrid player with good quickness and the ability to get himself a good shot. Last season he posted a 54.7 eFG% and should be a bit of a match-up problem for the Cougs.
In the backcourt, the Bulldogs have a guy that can knock down shots in Marquise Carter. Carter shot 38.6% from three last year and 53.3% from inside the arc, which is very good for a 6-4 player. Carter's opening-game shooting performance is interesting, as he struggled mightily. He went just 1-8 from two. Was this just a one-game off-night, or will he struggle with more responsibilty to shoulder? It's hard to extrapolate much from a single game.
Overall, Gonzaga was a good shooting team last year. They posted a 52.5 eFG%, good for 38th in the nation. It wasn't really a product of their conference schedule either, as they shot nearly the identical percentage during conference play.
To go along with their poor shooting performance, Gonzaga gave away possessions to EWU far too often. Their 25.5 TO Rate in that game is far and above the 19.9 they put up a season ago. Some of this may be caused by their search for a primary ball-handler. In that role, expect to see guys like David Stockton Gary Bell, Jr. and the aforementioned Carter. Bell and Carter struggled to keep possession in the opener, turning the ball over five times a piece. Bell's came on just 9 total possessions. Definitely some first-game jitters for the talented freshman.
As Gonzaga looks to fill the point guard position, the potential for a high turnover rate is there. This is something that WSU needs to take advantage of if they are going to pull the upset.
Despite their poor shooting and careless ball-handling, GU still posted a solid 1.1 points per possession against the Eagles. How? With their ability to crash the boards and get to the free throw line. While shooting is probably best way to cover up the ills of any basketball team, a group that can grab their own misses and draw fouls is hard to keep down for long. The Zags were able to use their physical advantages to overcome sloppiness in the opener. Their free throw rate (which is the percentage of free throws to field goal attempts) was a ridiculous 100.00. For every single field goal attempt they took, they also had a free throw attempt. For perspective, the national average was 37.7 in 2010-2011.
Free throw rate is an area where Sacre is able to cover up some of his deficiencies. He is very adept at drawing fouls and getting to the line. A season ago he was 43rd nationally is fouls drawn per 40 minutes and 46th in free throw rate. He makes the opposition pay when they foul him as well, as he shot 82.3% on free throws as a junior. The rest of the team is not a huge threat to draw fouls, although Marquise Carter took 18 free throw attempts in the opener. This could be an aspect he has improved upon as he is needed to be a more aggressive offensive player.
Gonzaga is a team that will send extra guys to the offensive glass. They were 41st nationally a year ago in offensive rebounding percentage. The most important guys to keep an eye on are Sacre and 6-9 sophomore Sam Dower. Both posted OR% of 10% last year. The Cougs will most likely be in a zone for most of this game, so it will be important for them to be sure to find a body and clear the defensive glass.
The Zags are a talented offensive team and dangerous on the inside with guys like Harris and Sacre. The Cougs will pack in the zone to try and limit their effectiveness. It will be up to the shooters on the outside, in Stockton and Carter, to make them pay.
In the past, Mark Few's teams have had a reputation for playing a "lazy" zone and not being able to stop anyone on defense, but that was not the case in 2010-2011. Gonzaga was ranked 32nd nationally is adjusted defensive efficiency.
The zone has an obvious effect, as the Bulldogs were very poor in defending the three point shot a year ago and continued that trend against Eastern Washington. Last year, they were 297th in the country in defensive three -point percentage. However, they were able to combat that by being very stingy inside the arc. The Zags were 11th best in the country on defensive 2 pt%, allowing them to finish a respectable 82nd in eFG% defense. Sacre plays a big role in that 2-point defense, as he was 56th nationally in block percentage, swatting 8.2% of opponents attempts.
Gonzaga won't usually force a high percentage of turnovers, as they were average nationally in that category. However, they are good at forcing the opponent into turnovers through steals. They recorded a steal on 10.5% of opposing possessions a year ago, good for 79th in the country. They did lose their top "stealer" in Stephen Gray.
The Bulldogs were very good at limited EWU's trips to the foul line, and were slightly above average a year ago. They seem to play fairly disciplined, as they don't have a single guy that was ranked nationally a year ago in fouls called per 40 minutes. This is one area where a healthy Reggie Moore could make a big impact, as GU's guards (especially Stockton) may have a hard time staying in front. With the groin injury, it's unlikely that Moore's explosiveness will be there.
Finally, Gonzaga's defense was most effective through limiting second chances for opponents a year ago. The national average for offensive rebounding perczntage is 32.3% and the Zags allowed 4% less than that. For them to repeat that it will have to be a group effort, as no single player is extraordinarily good at securing the defensive glass.
Expect GU's defense to solid again this year. They have so much length and that makes it very difficult for teams inside the paint. Just like with WSU, they will play zone, zone, and more zone. Washington State's shooters were able to knock down shots against LCSC, but they won't have nearly as much room to work with as they did in that game. Even with the tighter windows, there will be shots on the perimeter to be had. A good performance from three allowed EWU to hang with Gonzaga. The Cougs will need to do the same if they are to win in the McCarthey Athletic Center for the second time.
Shooting: Gonzaga, by a small margin. They have the most proven scorer on the floor in Harris. WSU has shooters on the outside, and they played a huge role in defeating the Zags a year ago, but it will be interesting to see how they do without Klay Thompson drawing attention..
Turnovers: WSU. I'll take Capers and a-less-than-100% Reggie Moore bringing the ball up over Gonzaga's group.
Rebounding: Gonzaga. Sacre will be tough to guard on the offensive glass. Brock Motum has yet to prove he can be even an average defensive rebounder. The rest of WSU's front line will have some trouble with Gonzaga's size.
Free Throws: Gonzaga. If Moore is limited by a groin injury, I see it being difficult for him getting into the lane, and he is really the only big threat the Cougs have when it comes to free throws. Sacre, Harris, and Carter give GU the advantage here.
Overall it is pretty clear that Gonzaga is the better team coming into the game. To come out on top, WSU will have to exploit matchups at the guard position, shoot the lights out, and defend the paint like they did a season ago. The problem is the two guys that were the biggest part of those last two points in Pullman last December aren't around anymore.
Even if the Cougs are outmatched, this should be a very interesting game to take in. There are so many question marks on this team that it almost makes it as exciting as if they were going to be a sure-fire NCAA Tournament contender. Although you should check back with me on that quote some time around the end of January.