364 days ago, the U.C.L.A. Bruins hosted the Gonzaga Bulldogs at Pauley. That game kicked off a key three game stretch to round out the pre-conference schedule and gave the Bruins a chance to show where the team was headed as it entered Pac-12 play. And it did just that.
The Bulldogs left Pauley with a solid 13 point win over the Bruins who continued on a 5 game slide that included the massacre by Kentucky and an 0-2 start in the Pac-12.
The Bruins get their chance for some redemption this Saturday when they travel to Spokane to meet the Bulldogs. The game will be televised on ESPN2 and tips off at 7pm PT.
The Zags are 6-2 this year and are currently ranked #20 in the AP Poll and #17 in the USA/Coaches poll, but it's still hard to tell if Gonzaga is their perennial top seed in March or if their well-deserved reputation is helping to buoy their rankings. Their two losses aren't terrible. The Zags suffered a 1 point loss to #25 Texas A&M and had a 10 point lead without their starting center over #19 Arizona at half before the Wildcats athleticism led to a second half comeback and win. The Bulldogs beat then #19 UConn on a neutral site but have had some close calls against some clearly lesser teams, including a tight win at home over Montana last Tuesday.
The Bulldogs are led by 6-10 senior forward Kyle Wiltjer who is averaging 20.6 ppg and 7.4 rebounds. He had 33 in the loss to Arizona which shows how he can play with anyone. Wiltjer (which autocorrects to Walter every single time, damnit!!!) was a key factor in the Zag's win last year in Pauley, and he'll likely be the key again this year. He has the size to play inside and the range to hit from 3 where he shoots 37%, so he will be a tough match for the Bruins intermittent defense.
The Bulldogs' other big forward is 6-11 sophomore Domantas Sabonis. He's averaging 14.4 ppg and is the team's leading rebounder with 10.4 rpg, while shooting a blazing 63% from the field. He is a tough matchup given his size and his experience and will be a force down low, so the Bruins will need to work to keep him off the glass and away from the rim.
The wild card for the Zags is freshman PG Josh Perkins who is averaging 9.8 points and 3.3 assists per game. He got a medical redshirt for last season after an early injury, so he already has a year with the program and he has plenty of star potential. But as with many young players, he is prone to inconsistency. His head coach called his first half performance against Montana "awful", but Perkins also coolly hit the winning jumper in the waning moments against Montana. It will be up to Bruin guards Bryce Alford, Aaron Holliday, and Isaac Hamilton to hound and pressure Perkins into making some errors and keeping the Bulldog offense from getting comfortable and being productive.
The big man for the Bulldogs is 7-1 senior Przemek Karnowski, but he has missed the last 3 games with back problems, and it's unclear when he'll return. In his absence, the Bulldogs will turn to 7-1 sophomore Ryan Edwards but there is a significant drop in play between the two. The Zags start a 3 guard lineup and have started Sabonis as a second forward instead of starting the game with Edwards at center. If Karnowski still can't go, look for the Bulldogs to do the same against the Bruins, though this should give Bruins big men Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh a lot more freedom to operate down low.
Guards Kyle Dranginis (6-5 senior) and Eric McClellan (6-4 senior) round out Gonzaga's starting lineup. Guards Bryan Alberts, and Silas Melson get regular time off the bench. The Zags are deep at guard, and are strong but not very deep up front and Kanowski's injury worsens that. You can see Gonzaga's full team stats here.
As usual, the Bulldogs have solid talent with lots of experience that fits well with head coach Mark Few's outstanding coaching and system. Few has to be considered in the ranks with Duke's Mike Krewzljkmswtfaeiouski and MSU's Tom Izzo as the premiere coaches in the country. I'd kill (figuratively) to woo Few to Westwood but the fly fishing in the area just isn't attractive enough. Gonzaga is a team that always seems to get much more from its pieces than other teams with seemingly bigger stars. They're like the anti-Kentucky, which is a compliment to the Gonzaga players and coaches, and to the Kentucky players. But injuries and inconsistent point guard play have led to an inconsistent start for the Bulldogs and I don't think either their fans or the country know quite yet just what they have in this team right now, though you have to think their prospects later in the season look good.
Saturday's game will be a good test for both teams. The Bruins showed what they can do when they play a more talented team that doesn't coach smartly or play particularly well, ala Kentucky. They have also shown what happens when they play selfishly and poorly against a lesser team that is well coached and executes well, ala Monmouth (it's in New Jersey, and yes, I had to look it up). Gonzaga presents a great program with good talent that is currently hampered by injuries and youth, but will otherwise be smart and prepared. Can the Bruins match those factors, figure out how to contain Wiltjer, and get out of Spokane (home of the greatest musician alive) with a win?