The good folks at Gonzaga's SB Nation blog The Slipper Still Fits were kind enough to interrupt their Tourney run and answer some questions of ours, like, how can U.C.L.A. possibly interrupt their tourney run? Thanks to Zach and The Slipper Still Fits for their time and thoughts... - BN eds
Bruins Nation: Most UCLA fans feel the Bruins are a better team than the one you handled easily in Pauley earlier this season. How is Gonzaga, different, if at all, than the team that beat UCLA in December?
The Slipper Still Fits: This team has been remarkably consistent in its approach this season. Whereas I definitely can see major differences in what UCLA has done from December until now, Gonzaga hasn't really done much different from what they did in December. In that matchup, the trio of Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski, and Domantas Sabonis accounted for roughly half of the scoring and that is where this team truly shines. With that in mind, the only major difference that you will see this time around is Eric McClellan. The transfer from Vanderbilt had to sit out the first half of the season and has provided nice depth for the Gonzaga backcourt. McClellan has primarily played for this team when it has needed an additional defensive stopper in addition to Gary Bell Jr. and that is exactly what they may need against UCLA if Powell or Alford starts to go off. He's a lanky guard at 6'4'' and has done a really nice job in limited minutes. He hasn't played as much as initially expected as it was discovered he had a stress fracture right after becoming eligible but I would guess he will play 10-12 minutes on Friday and make a good impact.
BN: What player or players on UCLA are you most concerned about? Do the Bulldogs just go with the same game plan and trust that the players and style replicate that first game, or do you think your team needs to do something different for this rematch?
TSSF: I think the two guys that concern Gonzaga the most are Bryce Alford and Kevon Looney - for completely different reasons. In Alford, UCLA has a guy that can get absolutely red hot from deep and nothing ends a March Madness run like a hot shooter on an underdog. This is why McClellan's minutes could be so crucial as he will matchup on Alford to spell Gary Bell. On the other end of the court, Looney will likely be relied upon to match up against Kyle Wiltjer and if he can get physical with Kyle and take him out of his element, then the Zags will need to rely a bit more on their perimeter players to carry the scoring load. That Looney - Wiltjer matchup will be a big deciding factor in this one. In terms of gameplan, I can't imagine much will change from what this team likes to do. It is an inside-out team that relies on solid post play with timely three-point shooting to pull the defense out. Against Iowa, it worked to absolute perfection so I see no real need for anything to change in how this team approaches the Sweet 16.
BN: Mark Few has had some great seasons at Gonzaga, but he's never taken a team past the Sweet Sixteen. What do you think is the primary reason for Mark Few's difficulty getting a team to the Elite 8? What makes this Gonzaga team different from prior teams that fell short in the tournament?
TSSF: There are so, so many hypotheses to try and answer this question. Many tend to think that the West Coast Conference competition tends to hurt the Zags as they don't have many close games heading into the tournament. Others think that Mark Few tends to get a bit complacent with how he builds and prepares his team for the tournament. Another group thinks that the Zags have just had tough luck with matchups in the past - especially since the 2006 loss to UCLA - and that the tournament is just a fickle monster. I'm somewhere in between but I definitely favor the last two theories the most. Prior to this years team, Gonzaga has never been built with a focus on the defensive end of the game. In this team, there are 3 really outstanding perimeter defenders in Gary Bell (who is one of the best defenders in the nation), Eric McClellan, and Kyle Dranginis. In years past, Gonzaga could not get a stop when it counted in March to save its life and this years team is so much different in that regard. In a guy like Domantas Sabonis, they have a player that provides them with fire and an edge which is also something that this team has lacked.
In terms of tough luck in the tournament, I think this argument holds more water than people want to give it credit for. There recent tournament losses have included three No. 1 seeds, a No. 2 seed, a No. 3 seed, and a guy named Steph Curry. The only really inexcusable loss was two years ago to Wichita State when the Shockers went absolutely nuts in the 2nd half from beyond the arc to beat the Bulldogs. In that game, Gary Bell broke his foot and I still maintain that we are not even discussing all this "Few can't take a team deep in the tournament" stuff.
BN: If I remember correctly, this is the first Gonzaga team to reach the Sweet Sixteen as a favorite. But if they do get to the Elite 8, Kentucky is looming. With that in mind, what do the Bulldogs need to accomplish in the tournament this year for the season to be deemed a success?
TSSF: I'm assuming you mean Duke is looming in the Elite 8 in the South bracket and, yes, they will be a pretty major test if they are able to get by Utah. There are varying degrees of "success" among Gonzaga fans as it relates to performance in the NCAA Tournament. There is the vocal minority that will always be dissatisfied (i.e. if they make it to the Final 4 but lose, they will claim Few can't get them to the championship game and should be fired) and then there is the majority of folks that have learned to take each year as they come and enjoy the ride. At this point in time, Gonzaga is 34-2 so if you have a hard time calling that success, then I would call you an overly entitled individual. With that said, there would be disappointment if the Zags do lose to UCLA just given the fact that there is little question who the better overall team is and we saw just how good this Zags team can be against Iowa.
Long story short, there is no magic number that Gonzaga needs to hit for "success" to be achieved but a Final 4 appearance sure would be a nice cherry on top of an incredible season.
BN: Few seems to recruit players for his style of basketball rather than chasing the national big name recruits, and clearly it works very well. Do games like this carry much weight for Gonzaga with recruiting rights on the West Coast, or is that separate enough issue that this game doesn't matter much in that area?
TSSF: Gonzaga's recruiting has become pretty stellar in the United States but it really defines itself internationally. Kevin Pangos, Domantas Sabonis, and Przemek Karnowski were all international guys that Gonzaga recruited very early on and it paid off in a big way. All three of those guys would have been top-75 recruits in the states and I'm guessing that Karnowski and Sabonis would have been top-20 to 30. Mark Few also does a really nice job in the states in landing prized recruits like Gary Bell and Josh Perkins but it takes a whole lot of stalking on Few's part to sign them up. With that, there is no doubt that the more tournament success this team can have, the better it is for recruiting. Gonzaga has also sold the "you will always get the tournament" message to recruits and now they can send the "we go deep in the tournament, too" message which can only help.
BN: Any predictions for the final score?
TSSF: 82-74 Gonzaga. I think it is close throughout as Looney will defend Wiltjer well and the Zags will struggle from time to time but, in the end, I think this team has too much firepower to fall in the Sweet 16 to UCLA.
Thanks again to Zach and The Slipper Still Fits. You can see our answers to their questions here, and check out their fantastic site and all their great material leading up to tonight's matchup and join in the discussion.