There were moments during the opening round game against Southern, where I think all fans were getting flashbacks to the 2013 games in Salt Lake City. While the Zags escaped Southern that year, they were unable to do the same thing against Wichita St., and saw a promising season come to an end. With that said, a reasonably close opening round game is about the only comparison I see between the two years. This Gonzaga team is better than that one, and their opponent in the round of 32, is not as good as that year.
Breaking Down The Wildcats
KenPom Ranking: No. 38
Big 10 Finish: 4-way tie for 4th at 10-8
This has been without a doubt, a historic season for Northwestern. Not only has it made its first NCAA Tournament, it is coming off of a win over Vanderbilt in what was probably the most compelling game of the opening day. Plus, they have Julia Louis-Dreyfus supporting the team, which if you like Seinfeld or VEEP (and you should), makes them a very likable team. With that said, when you actually look at their schedule, this is not a team with a ton of good wins.
Let's start with their recent form, as the Wildcats struggled down the stretch. Since February 1, Northwestern is 6-7, with losses to Purdue (twice), Illinois (twice), Maryland, Indiana and an absolute dismantling against Wisconsin in the BIg 10 tourney. The Wildcats earned their way into the tournament by beating teams they should, and avoiding bad losses. This is a totally fair approach to a season, but also part of the reason that KenPom has them closer to a 10-seed in actual performance.
Who To Watch
The engine that makes this team go is Bryant McIntosh. The talented junior guard will probably remind Gonzaga fans of a guy like Matthew Dellavedova. He is not as good as Dellavedova is/was, but he does as a great job of getting into the lane and hitting tough shots. He isn't a great shooter from the perimeter, which is a theme you will notice about this team.
Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law are both talented scorers, and will draw a lot of attention from Josh Perkins, Jordan Mathews and Silas Melson. I expect Nigel Williams-Goss to be focused on McIntosh, and his physicality and strength can hopefully slow the lead guard down. Law is the better shooter of the two and probably the best overall athlete on the perimeter. He struggled against Vanderbilt, but I don't expect that to happen again.
The main option in the frontcourt is Dererk Pardon. Frankly, he is a lot like Johnathan Williams. He is an athletic and talented lefty that won't be the main focus of the offense, but will get buckets on energy plays and really lock down defensively.
The crowd is going to be fascinating on this one. As you might have noticed on ESPN, or perhaps scrolling on your Twitter feed, every Northwestern alum and fan is in Salt Lake City. This crowd will be heavily for the Wildcats. I actually think this will be a boost for Gonzaga, as this team has shown it likes playing with a chip on its shoulder and being an "underdog". If Gonzaga lets Northwestern hang around, the crowd will only get more and more lathered up in hopes of an upset.
Can Gonzaga find its rhythm again? SDSU packed the paint and made the game ugly, which is absolutely what they were supposed to do and should do. I don't think Northwestern will play as extreme defensively, and I think Gonzaga will have a lot of opportunities to push the tempo like it did in the 2nd half. With that said, this team needs to hit open shots, and it needs Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins to play well. If that happens, fans can make plans to head to San Jose next weekend.
Last time Gonzaga played in SLC, Wichita St. put together a truly historic stretch of offense over the final minutes of the game, and shot the ball better than it had last year. I don't expect that to happen again this year, as this is a much better defensive team. Therefore, I expect it to be a bit ugly, but I think Gonzaga moves on to the Sweet 16 with a 73-59 win.