NCAA Tourney: Gonzaga Preview

UCLA and Gonzaga face off in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday. Will UCLA's vaunted defense finally meet its match in the the Zags' Adam Morrison, or is Gonzaga more vulnerable than their 29-3 record indicates?

On Thursday night, the UCLA Bruins, a rejuvenated program under Coach Ben Howland, will play in their biggest game in several years.

The Bruins, who have a long history of national championships but a more recent history of post-season failure, and their fans, will travel to Oakland, California, to take on the Bulldogs of Gonzaga University. The game is in the NCAA Tournament's "Sweet Sixteen," and the winner of the game will earn a berth in the regional final to be played on Saturday.

In short, the Bruins are two steps away from their first Final Four since their national title team of 1995. The Zags have been in this position more recently, while the Bruins have exactly one player on their roster, Cedric Bozeman, who has ever been this far in the "Big Dance." The Bruins are young and this will be a pressure-filled game. Moreover, Howland has never gotten a team past the round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament, so this is a watershed moment for him also. How will the Bruins handle the lights, pressure and Adam Morrison? And how will Howland handle the pressure of never having won a game like this before?

So, let's get something out of the way quickly. Gonzaga doesn't get the "benefit" of calls from the officials near as much as many think. They had such a disparity against Indiana because they got the ball inside and Indiana played hack-a-Zag, while the Hoosiers, especially after Marco Killingsworth got into foul trouble, started jacking up an inordinate amount of three-point shots. In essence, the same thing happened in the UCLA-Alabama game. The Tide did a good job of penetration, especially in the first half, and the Bruins settled for a lot of outside shots. Sure, there were some questionable calls made, but you didn't read or hear complaints about the number of free throw attempts the Tide had and the disparity between that and the number the Bruins shot. But I digress…the point is that Gonzaga, and by implication Adam Morrison, do not get the benefit of officiating calls like some schools from Durham, North Carolina get. So let's not have UCLA fans try to use that as an excuse. In the first round against Xavier, the Musketeers shot 33 free throws to the Zaga 27. Against other "major conference" competition, the Zags generally shot fewer free throws. In Maui, Connecticut shot 7 more…Michigan State shot 5 more and, in Seattle against the Huskies, Washington shot more than the Zags. Again, the point is that officials may decide the game if they call it very closely, but that won't happen because they're out to protect "Ammo."

"Ammo"…the nickname that people in Spokane have given junior forward Adam Morrison (6'8" 205 lbs.). It's an appropriate nickname considering he can score (fire) from anywhere on the floor. He has a very good jump shot, can take the ball to the rack, and even can be the point guard when necessary, as evidenced by his 2nd half performance against Indiana on Saturday. Morrison is, offensively, the complete package. He shoots well going left and shoots well going right. He shoots well off the dribble and with his feet set. He is long and knows how to use his body. The only thing that has been able to slow him down is a real physical defender or his own fatigue (as in the Memphis game). He can even shoot well over longer defenders. Cedric Bozeman, Luc Mbah a Moute and Arron Afflalo will all have their hands full with this kid. But he's probably not the best offensive player the Bruins have faced this year. That honor belongs to Brandon Roy, whose ability to get to the basket hurt the Bruins. Morrison knows how to get to the hole, but my guess is that Howland would much prefer Morrison to have to continually shoot jumpers than get to the rack. Morrison is deceptively quick, but not like Roy. Roy was and is a bad match-up for UCLA, just like Morrison is a bad match-up for almost any team not getting paid.

Now Morrison is not as bad a defender as some pundits make him out to be, but he isn't…well, he isn't Bozeman. Morrison doesn't use his length really well and he does get muscled around underneath his defensive boards. He tends to take chances and reach a lot. In fact, the best the Bruins might hope for is that Morrison gets into foul trouble early. That would frustrate him (which is when he consistently doesn't play well), and keep him from getting hot. Now, before any of you go off about how the other Zags "picked up the slack" against Indiana, know this: Indiana is not a good defensive team. And they are an even poorer defensive team on the low block. Take Killingsworth out of their line-up (which his big mouth did with the 2nd-half technical foul), and the Hoosiers' interior defense and rebounding is worse than about any other team in the "western" section of the tournament. It really was that bad. So don't read anything into the other Zags going off against the Hoosiers (And as we all know now, the Big 10 was a tad overrated as a conference this season). But back to Morrison: Hopefully Howland will instruct Bozeman to be as aggressive against Morrison as he was in the second half against Alabama because my guess is that Morrison will score over 25.

The rest of the Zag line-up can be potent but, unlike Morrison, who has seen defenses geared to him nightly, they haven't seen the team defense they'll see Thursday night all season.

The best Zag after Morrison is senior center J.P. Batista (6'9" 269 lbs.). Batista is second on the Zags in scoring at 19.3 PPG and leads them in rebounding at 9.5 RPG. Batista really is a beast and he will have a huge strength advantage against Ryan Hollins, Lorenzo Mata and Alfred Aboya. However, if Batista is out, then Gonzaga has no one to match up with Hollins. Batista has his weaknesses, too. He isn't the quickest player, and when he gets the ball in the low post, he almost always comes back to the center, which is where help should come from. The rotation of the Bruins' defense will have to be in top form because the minute Hollins needs help to hold his ground against Batista, Howland will undoubtedly start throwing quick double-teams his way. That means the other Bruins will have to rotate quickly to the other shooters that Gonzaga will have on the floor. Now, Batista doesn't shoot that well "over" defenders, preferring to muscle them or get around them (he may not be quick, but he isn't slow, either). He shouldn't be able to go over Hollins and he won't go around him. My fear is that he will back him down as Hollins stands behind him, letting Batista get the entry pass and hoping his own length will force Batista into a bad shot. If Hollins fronts Batista, Hollins is in danger of picking up a couple of those silly elbowing fouls and the Bruins are a better team at this point with Hollins on the floor. The best guess is that Hollins will vary whether he fronts Batista or not. It's unlikely that if Hollins does get good fronting position that the Zags can throw the ball over the top with the help that the Bruins typically give.

The other forward spot is handled by junior Sean Mallon (6'9" 218 lbs.). There has been a lot of talk the past week about what a force Mallon can be and how he lit up the Hoosiers. To see why that happened, please refer to the earlier statement about the Indiana defense. Look, Mallon is a nice player, but he isn't really more than a "glue" guy. Many of his 6.9 PPG come from the fact that most teams have to worry so much about Morrison and Batista. His 4.5 RPG is a nice number, and actually better than Morrison's 5.5 RPG because Mallon plays 13 less MPG, but Mallon is slow and hasn't had to face a player the caliber of Mbah a Moute since he was up against the Huskies. In that game Mallon was benched for large portions of the game because he couldn't keep up with the quickness of Bobby Jones or the range of Mike Jensen. If that's the case, then the Bruins must take advantage of the quickness disparity that Mbah a Moute will have against Mallon. Even Aboya, with his length and speed, should be a tough match-up for Mallon.

Now for the key match-up of the game: The point guard for the Zags is junior Derek Raivo (6'3" 175 lbs.). Mr. Raivo, meet Mr. Afflalo. The Zags struggle when Raivo is off his game, and while he is quick, Raivo isn't very strong. When he is pushed around Raivo can't get the Zags into their offense and they struggle a bit. This is the kind of game where 5 or 6 minutes of offensive struggles will cost either team the game. Afflalo is quick enough to stay with Raivo (who won't shoot a jumper without a bit of room), and a lot stronger than the Gonzaga point guard. While Raivo is almost automatic from the charity stripe (92%), he is shooting less than 39% from the field. That means he wants to drive and dish. Raivo's assist-to-turnover ratio is barely 1.5-1 and a lot of that comes from other teams taking away his passing lanes. That's the kind of lane denial defense that the Bruins play.

At the other guard spot will be sophomore Pierre Altidor-Cespedes (6'0" 180 lbs.), who is quick, but not lightning quick, and is really another "glue" guy. He doesn't rebound well and he isn't a big assist guy. He does shoot almost 40% from beyond the arc so Jordan Farmar and Darren Collison must body up to him, but Altidor-Cespedes only plays about 20 minutes per game, mostly because his defense is suspect and this is on an already defensively challenged team. Expect most of the off-guard time to go to senior Erroll Knight (6'7" 211 lbs.), simply to utilize his length defensively to keep Farmar out of the lane. If that happens, you have to hope Howland moves Bozeman to the point at least to initiate the offense because Farmar doesn't do well up against a great deal of length. The other guard who gets some playing time is freshman Jeremy Pargo (6'2" 215 lbs.), who isn't a great shooter but he plays hard and does what Coach Mark Few asks of him. He has a chance to be a future star.

The other players that Few can throw against the Bruins are both forwards, sophomore David Pendegraft (6'6" 218 lbs.) and freshman Josh Heytvelt (6' 11" 217 lbs.). Pendegraft is a substitute for either Morrison of Mallon (usually Mallon), as Knight can be, and like Mallon, he is a good "glue" guy. He has had a nasty habit of hitting big shots at the end of games. Heytvelt looked like the real deal early in the year and then he got hurt and hasn't been the same since his return. But he might have more athletic talent than any other forward on the team, including Morrison.

On offense the Zags like to run a lot of screens. You can't call it a true motion offense but that's what it most closely resembles. They screen a lot for Morrison and he knows how to use the screens (curl or flair), to get the best look at the basket or to get a defender off balance. They like to get the ball inside whenever possible just because getting the ball to Batista on the block creates space for the rest of their offense. But they are not a true 3-point shooting team. Outside of Morrison, Altidor-Cespedes and sometimes Knight, they don't shoot well from behind the arc. I would put Raivo in that group, but his 35% 3-point shooting percentage is more a product of the beginning of the year. Over the last few weeks, Raivo's percentage has barely been above 20% (and there has been some talk that a back injury is hampering him; bottom line, he hasn't played with the most confidence recently). Gonzaga's team three-point percentage is at 37%, but that's because Morrison has made 43% of his 3-pointers and has taken a whopping 307 3-point shots! They just simply aren't a 3-point shooting team. They are a dribble-penetration team, and that might play right into the Bruins' hands.

On defense, the Zags will mix and match. They'll play zone, but they aren't as long and athletic as Alabama, and they'll play man, but they don't move their feet well as and they are slow on their rotations. Maybe not by the numbers, but the the Bruins are a much better rebounding team than the Zags, and UCLA is much stronger and fundamentally sound than anyone Gonzaga has faced in over two months.

There's no doubt Few knows what he's doing, just like Howland, and you can be sure he'll devise a plan to exploit advantages they have over the Bruins, like a go-to guy, a behemoth underneath, and the inevitable "we aren't being respected" tact that I am sure Few will play up to his players. But a couple of things stand out: First, Morrison looks tired recently. Second, which game do you think prepared these teams better for Thursday? Was it Indiana for Gonzaga, or a vastly under-rated Alabama team for UCLA? The Bruins are better prepared by competition for this game. Finally, as good as Gonzaga is on offense, they turn the ball over quite a bit, to the tune of almost 14 TPG. And this includes the games against the West Coast Conference. And they are playing a team that will take away the passing lanes and really force them to the basket. When those lanes are consistently taken away, as they were against Memphis and Washington, the Zags honestly look lost.

The Bruins will win this game regardless of how its played because, final point: Great defense almost always beats a great offense. Just ask Tark the Shark about Duke in 1991. Close game or blowout, Bruins get to Saturday. And it wouldn't be surprising (as long as many of you are comparing the Alabama game to Missouri in '95), if the Bruins pulled a "Mississippi State" on the Zags and won going away.

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