Hoops breakdown: Gonzaga

A week after giving No. 1 Illinois about all it could handle, Missouri faces a talented Gonzaga squad Thursday. The Bulldogs have already toppled two teams ranked No. 3, exposing the inaccuracy of their No. 12 ranking. The Tigers will enter the game without Spencer Laurie, increasing the pressure on freshman Jason Horton.

1) A major mid-major: If anything, the runaway Gonzaga train looked to be slowing down this season. That hasn't happened: After a 28-3 record led them to a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament (where they were toppled by Nevada in the second round) last season, the Bulldogs lost Blake Stepp, Kyle Bankhead and Cory Violette, who combined for almost 35 points a game. Forward Ronny Turiaf, whom many expected to turn pro, chose to return for his senior season, a decision that made Gonzaga one of the most talented teams in the country.

The Bulldogs remain the beast of the West Coast Conference, but they could easily dominate the Pac-10 or be a player in any conference in the country. With their 78-75 win against Oklahoma State on Tuesday, the Bulldogs improved to 10-1, their only loss an 89-72 hurting put on them by Illinois last month. If Gonzaga defeats Missouri on Thursday, they will secure a top 10 ranking. Regardless of the outcome, they are one of the 10 best teams in the country.

2) Tender Turiaf: At 6-foot-10 and 243 pounds, Turiaf is an athlete in the paint, capable of going over, under or around most post players. Averaging 19.1 points and 9.1 rebounds, Turiaf has a decent mid-range game, but it would be a significant advantage if the Tigers limit him to producing from the exterior.

That is, if Turiaf plays much at all. He scored 10 points in just 18 minutes against Oklahoma State, due to the combination of an ankle injury and foul trouble. Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Turiaf was "about 50 percent" coming into the game, so it's unlikely he'll be feeling much better Thursday.

With Turiaf limited, Gonzaga has one less offensive threat, but reserve J.P. Batista looks to be a solid contributor in Turiaf's place. A junior college transfer that had never scored in double digits, Batista scored 18 points on 8-of-9 shooting against the Cowboys. Batista is not nearly as dangerous as Turiaf but Missouri will have to be aware of him.

3) Youth movement: We've consistently documented the youth of the Missouri roster, which became a little bit younger when sophomore point guard Spencer Laurie underwent surgery Tuesday to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. Laurie will be out 4-6 weeks, solidifying freshman Jason Horton as the man in charge of running the offense.

Gonzaga faced a similar situation before the season, having lost Stepp and his 6.7 assists per game. Sophomore Derek Raivio has replaced Stepp, and quite well at that. After averaging 11 minutes per game last season, Raivio has flourished as a starter, scoring 11 points and chipping in 5.6 assists per game.

Raivio is quick and hits 51 percent of his 3-pointers, giving Horton another tough test. He handled Illinois' Dee Brown well last week, holding him to 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting. A bruised thigh slowed Brown he but looked to be at his normal quickness, meaning Horton played his best game as a Tiger against the Fighting Illini. He'll need a similar effort to slow down Raivio.

4) More on Morrison: The remarkable thing about Gonzaga is that, for such a small school in an underrated conference, they have several players that can fill up the stat sheet every night. Instead of having a player or two lead them to national significance, the Zags have had player after player contribute to their winning ways. Many consider sophomore swingman Adam Morrison to be the most talented Bulldog since John Stockton.

Morrison is a matchup nightmare. At 6-foot-8 and 205 pounds, he is a lanky shooter that does most of his damage from the perimeter but is also capable of driving to the rim. Morrison scored in double digits 20 times last season despite starting just one game. He has picked up where he left off, averaging 19.8 points and 5.7 rebounds this year. His 17 points were huge in the Bulldogs' 87-80 overtime win against the Tigers in Seattle last season, and it would not be at all surprising if he surpasses that mark Thursday.

If his 3-point shot is not falling, Morrison can be rather average. (He shot 30 percent last season and has equaled that mark so far this season.) The Tigers only have one player long and quick enough to match up well with Morrison: freshman forward Marshall Brown. Shutting down Morrison is a lot to ask of Brown, but he has played well in recent weeks. If he can stay out of foul trouble, this might be the game that Brown breaks out.

5) Projected headline: Bulldogs zig-Zag past Tigers

Anyone that saw Gonzaga dominate Oklahoma State much of the game Tuesday can see the Bulldogs are a team to be reckoned with. The Tigers held their own for much of the contest against the Fighting Illini last week, even outplaying them in the second half. Missouri will need a similar effort to stay in this one.

After being the favorite in a semi-neutral matchup against the Bulldogs last season, Missouri will be a significant underdog this time around. A win would be huge for the team's development, giving the Tigers a ton of momentum heading into the start of Big 12 Conference play next weekend.

An ugly loss would do just the opposite, destroying any positive feelings the Tigers brought out of the Illinois game. I'd be surprised if the Tigers fare as well against the Zags as they did against the Illini, but it will all come down to the shooting night each team has. If the Tigers find their stroke early, they have a great chance to win this game. If they don't, they have no chance.

Final score: Bulldogs 75, Tigers 63


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