This Saturday's contest offers up a number of firsts: the first regular season Gonzaga basketball game on network TV (CBS), and Missouri Head Coach Quin Snyder's first visit back home to the land where he once shined as a star at Mercer Island High School. Coming with Snyder is a Missouri squad that is deep, experienced, talented, and carries high expectations. Missouri's first three games were against Oakland, MI., Coppin State and Indiana. In all three Missouri struggled, but with this many goods, the Tigers are a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.
What Gonzaga will face in Seattle on Saturday is a Tiger team that in many ways resembles itself. Consider this:
2) Experience = Missouri starts 4 seniors and one sophomore.
3) Young talent = Missouri's bench is loaded with young players who already wear the Tiger colors well.
4) Inside/Out = Missouri's key strength is their ability to be dominant inside and on the outside. You can't just key in on one thing without getting burned by the other.
5) Quality Coaching = Quin Snyder played for the best (Coach K at Duke), coached under the best (Coach K at Duke), and has now brought these tools to Missouri, where he surprisingly guided his Tigers to an Elite Eight appearance two years ago. The Tigers also performed very well in their loss to eventual regional champ Marquette in last year's tourney.
6) Getting Physical = The Tiger guards are strong and physical for college guards, and needless to say, their inside guys are warriors.
7) Turnovers = Like Gonzaga so far in this young season, Missouri has struggled immensely with defensive pressure, which has lead to turnover problems.
...And many other comparisons can be made. Here's a look at the Tiger starters:
PG - #1 Jimmy McKinney, 6 ft. 3, soph = has been forced to serve as Mizzou's point guard in Randy Pulley's absence. While McKinney is a physical athlete who can beat you in a number of ways, he has struggled against defensive pressure
and with running the offense. He will be used more effectively once Pulley comes on board.
SG - #23 Rickey Paulding, 6 ft. 5, senior = one of two Wooden Award candidates on Missouri, Rickey, along with Zag Blake Stepp, played on this year's Pan Am team. Paulding has been slowed by a bad ankle which has hampered his ability to
drive to the basket with effectiveness. Paulding is tough minded, experienced, solid defensively, and shot near 40% from 3 point land last year.
SG - #15 Josh Kroenke, 6 ft. 4, senior = another experienced guard who has been through the Big 12 wars, Kroenke may be Mizzou's most consistent 3 point threat.
SF/PF = #5 Travon Bryant, 6 ft. 9, senior = Bryant is Mizzou's version of Adam Morrison, but with more experience. The ultimate inside/out guy. Bryant developed well as a post presence during the course of last year, and this has
made him a nasty matchup. He's strong enough to post you, but quick enough to get out on the perimeter and launch a 3 with good accuracy. A former McDonald's All American as well.
C = #50 Arthur Johnson, 6 ft. 9, senior = the other Wooden Award candidate and Pan Am guy, Johnson represents everything that is good about college basketball. Not heavily recruited out of high school, Johnson is physical and has as good of hands as any big man in the college game. He has worked hard and has improved every year he's been a Tiger. The offense runs through him, and
when Missouri forgets about him, they end up with problems.
Linas Kleiza, once he announced he was going to attend Missouri, was instantly labeled an impact freshman. The 6 ft. 8 forward is still getting adjusted to the American game and Mizzou's system, but he is a physical force underneath, and is a rebounding machine. Witness his excellent performance in Saturday's Indiana win after Johnson fouled out. He also has a sweet touch from the outside.
6 ft.1 freshman Spencer Laurie, Missouri's Mr. Basketball last year, has been playing major minutes spelling McKinney at the point, and some Mizzou fans think that his quickness and passing make Mizzou better offensively.
SOME KEYS TO THE GAME:
In all three Mizzou games so far, they have struggled with perimeter shooting and defensive pressure. Part of this is a function of not having a true point guard at this time, and part of it is Paulding's nagging ankle problem.
All 3 opponents have thrown defensive pressure and nasty zone defenses at these guys, daring the Tigers to kill them from the outside. Fortunately for the Tigers, in the end, the inside presence of Johnson, Bryant and Kleiza have proven too strong for all 3 teams to handle.
The Mizzou offense runs through Johnson and its meat in the middle. It will be a war of attrition inside on Saturday. Mizzou will not face many teams with a frontcourt as powerful as the Zags have. But then, the Zags are in the same
position. Both Johnson and Zag PF Ronny Turiaf are foul prone, and who gets in foul trouble first could play a huge role in this game. Whose big guys wear down the most will mean a lot.
Another question is the condition of Paulding's ankle, and Mizzou's ability to knock down the three against the Zag zone. If McKinney, Paulding, Kroenke and Bryant get rolling from 3 point land, this will really open up the middle and diversify Mizzou's offense, which is as well rounded as any offense in the nation. Look for Gonzaga to use more on-the-ball pressure in an effort to turn the Tigers over, hassle their perimeter players, and cut off passing angles to their big men.
For Gonzaga, their "A" game is a must, and they must play two solid halves of basketball rather than one. Their defensive pressure on the perimeter must be intense, and their big players ready for the challenge of facing a physical
Missouri interior. Turiaf must also avoid cheap fouls as his athleticism in the middle versus Mizzou's banger based frontcourt is crucial.
Gonzaga has been able to handle teams inside when their jump shots haven't fallen, and they have been able to handle teams outside when their interior players have been held in check. Both the inside and outside games must be working at once for the Zags to prevail.
Gonzaga has beaten a veteran team in Georgia but the SEC had little depth. The Zags have defeated Maryland but the Terrapins are extremely young and more finesse, not physical. Missouri has everything that these teams don't: the total package.
If you aren't in Seattle's Key Arena, tune into CBS at 11:00AM PST and catch what looks to be a great matchup.