Men’s basketball prepares for No. 1 Gonzaga

As they do every year, the Gonzaga Bulldogs men’s basketball team will make its trip to the Jenny Craig Pavilion (JCP) to take on the University of San Diego Toreros.

While the sight of Gonzaga’s red and blue uniforms will be a familiar one for USD fans and alumni, this year’s installment of the highly-anticipated matchup features something new.

When the game tips off at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23, it will be the first time that the Bulldogs step onto the JCP hardwood as the No. 1 team in the country. If USD is to pull off this upset and put an end to Gonzaga’s storybook season, it will take a sharp game plan and even sharper execution.

Gonzaga has sat atop the nation’s rankings once before, in the closing weeks of the 2012-13 season, but has never played the Toreros while holding down the top spot. Aside from the high ranking, Gonzaga also arrives in San Diego with an undefeated record.

Head coach Mark Few has guided the Bulldogs to a 28-0 record to begin the season. His team has breezed through the West Coast Conference (WCC) schedule, winning all 16 of their conference clashes by an average of 26 points.

Only twice this year have the Bulldogs won a WCC game by 10 points or less. They have more conference wins by 30 points or more (eight) than they do wins by 20 points or less (five). A win against USD would give Gonzaga the fifth-best record to begin a season in the last 40 years of NCAA men’s basketball.

Despite the national recognition that their opponent is getting, the Toreros remain a focused group with one common goal: getting a win. Sophomore guard Olin Carter spoke about his team’s preparation for facing the best team in college basketball.

Olin Carter III shoots over Przemek Karnowski in the Jan. 26 matchup vs. Gonzaga. Photo courtesy of USD Athletics

“Our preparation hasn’t changed,” Carter said. “We’ve prepared the same for every team this year. The coaches give us the game plan, and we try our best to execute it.”

The last team to beat Gonzaga was the Syracuse Orange, who knocked them off 63-60 in the Sweet 16 of last year’s NCAA Tournament. No USD squad has been able to defeat Gonzaga since Feb. 23, 2014, when a team led by Johnny Dee and Duda Sanadze handed the Bulldogs a 69-66 loss.

For the Toreros to recapture the magic from that night and pull off the upset, against a Gonzaga team that is significantly better than the 2014 version, they will have to play a nearly perfect game.

Known primarily for their offensive mastery, this year’s Bulldogs have come together to form one of the best defensive teams in the country.

They rank second in all of college basketball in adjusted defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures how many points a team allows per 100 defensive possessions. The Bulldogs’ number currently sits at 88.4, only a tick behind the Virginia Cavaliers, a program that has become synonymous with defensive stinginess in recent years.

In addition to their newfound defensive prowess, the team affectionately known as the Zags also possesses the offensive firepower that has been the hallmark of their team for the last 15 years.

Led by junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (16.3 points per game) and senior center Przemek Karnowski (12.8 points per game), the WCC leaders have one of college basketball’s five most efficient offenses to go along with their elite defense. Gonzaga ranks fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency, scoring 122.6 points per 100 possessions.

The last three teams to finish a season in the top five of both categories—the 2008 Kansas Jayhawks, 2010 Duke Blue Devils, and 2016 Villanova Wildcats—all went on to win the national championship. Apart from Williams-Goss and Karnowski, the Zags’ deep roster also includes seven-foot freshman Zach Collins.

Scoring an average of 10.6 points per game and canning just above 65 percent of his shots, Collins is considered by many to be a potential lottery pick in the upcoming 2017 NBA Draft.

Transfers Jordan Mathews, who came to Gonzaga from Cal Berkeley, and Johnathan Williams from the University of Missouri give the Bulldogs two more veteran players averaging north of nine points per game.

Carter understands better than most that beating the top-ranked team in the land will take a heroic defensive performance from the Toreros, a challenge that he feels his team is up for.

“They have a lot of size and score a lot of points in the paint,” Carter said. “We need to do a good job of making them play on the perimeter and hit jumpers.”

When looking at potential matchups for this game, the Toreros biggest weakness appears to be in the paint. Gonzaga has started Karnowski and Williams together for every game this season. Both players stand 6’9” or taller, which gives them both at least two inches on USD’s frontcourt pairing of Brett Bailey and Cameron Neubauer.

Freshmen Jose Martinez and Frank Ryder, both of whom measure in at 6’10”, could be used heavily off the bench to deal with the overwhelming size of Gonzaga’s big men. Look for 6’8” freshman forward Juwan Gray, who has started the last 19 games for the Toreros, to also figure heavily in the outcome of this game.

Gray could provide an interesting matchup for Williams, who is shooting a career best 44 percent on three pointers and 60 percent on all field goals.

Regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s game, playing Gonzaga will provide an opportunity for the Toreros to go toe to toe with some of the sport’s premiere players and coaches. Carter shared that he’s excited about the direction that the West Coast Conference is heading given the recent success of Gonzaga as well as Saint Mary’s.

“I think it’s a special thing for our conference to have two ranked teams in Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s,” Carter said. “Most conferences don’t even have one ranked team so to have two shows the talent that is present in this conference.”

Not only will the game be an important and well-timed tune up for the WCC Tournament, it can also serve as a fantastic learning experience for the younger players on head coach Lamont Smith’s roster.

Whether it’s sophomore Carter, who stands to take over as the face of the program next year, or freshmen Gray, Martinez, and Ryder, doing battle with the best team in the conference, and in some people’s opinions the entire country, will be a valuable experience that can elevate the team’s confidence for future seasons.