The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is in the books and all that remains is 16 teams. Each team remaining hopes to survive the second weekend on their way to the Final Four in Houston. For Gonzaga and Syracuse, they are just happy to be in the position they are in, as neither of them probably thought they would here a few months ago. Both of these double digit seeds dominated their way through the first weekend, as neither one had trouble dismantling their first two opponents.
Gonzaga, an 11 seed, beat 6 seed Seton Hall by 16 and 3 seed Utah by 23, to give them two first round wins by a combined 39 points. That is the third largest margin of victory ever by a double digit seed in the NCAA Tournament. Syracuse, a 10 seed, used their suffocating 2-3 zone defense to smother Dayton, a 7 seed, by 19 and to stop 15 seed Middle Tennessese by 25, 75-50. Syracuse, which was equally as impressive as the Zags, won both games by a combined 44 points.
Gonzaga and Syracuse head to Chicago looking to advance to the Elite 8 on Sunday. Each team has dominated on offense and defense to get to this point in the tournament, but the key matchup in the game will be Gonzaga’s efficient offense against Syracuse’ deadly 2-3 zone defense which has held its first two opponents to 30% shooting in the first two rounds of this tournament. Syrcause’ defense is not something that is easy to prepare for by any means, and their length and athleticism cannot be simulated in practice.
Gonzaga will need it’s frontcourt of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis to step up big if Gonzaga is going to break down the zone, and get easy buckets inside. Sabonis, who has been an absolute monster in this tournament, will look to continue his effectiveness on the offensive and defensive glass. Kyle Wiltjer though is the one guy that could break down the Cuse zone with his long range ability from behind the arc, both he and the guards are going to have to play smart and make shots consistently for Gonzaga to advance. Eric McClellan will also be a key for Gonzaga, as his play on offense has risen significantly of late, as he has scored 20 or more points in 3 of the last 5. Before this streak, he had scored over 20 just once all season.
For Syracuse, they will look to lean on their senior guards in Michael Gbinje, and Trevor Cooney who have been effective all season long from 3 point range. Gbinje, who averages 17.8 points per game, will probably need to have a huge night if the Orange want to advance to the next round. If he scores consistently, that opens things up for perimeter players Malachi Richardson, and their sixth man Tylor Lydon, who have been key cogs in the Syracuse offense all season long. Syracuse has 4 players that can knock down three’s and get into the paint, so it will be important that Gonzaga defends the 3 point line in this game like they have all season long.
Two other things to note in this game are that Gonzaga’s defense in this tournament has been spectacular. It may be the single reason they have won both games in blowout fashion. Eric McClellan, the Zags best defender and most versatile player shut down the Pirates best player in the first round in Isiah Whitehead, holding him to 4-24 shooting, including 0-10 from beyond the arc. In their second game, the Zags shut down Utah’s best player and 7 foot center Jakob Poeltl, as they held the future NBA star to just 5 points on 2-5 shooting. If this trend continues, and the Zags and that defense shut down Gbinje and limit everyone else, it could be a long night for the Orange. For the tournament, the Zags opponents are averaging 55 points a game and only 37 percent shooting from the field. It’s safe to say both these teams got here because of their defense.
This game is expected to be a low scoring affair, and the first team to 50 might just pull this one out. You have to remember though that both teams have a variety of scoring options, so who knows what Friday night will have in store for us. You don’t make it this far unless you’re a really good basketball team, so look for this game between the Orange and the Zags to be one of the more entertaining Sweet 16 matchups, as both come into the contest red hot. The Zags have won 7 in a row, while the Orange looks for their 3rd straight win. A spot in the Elite 8 is on the line, which team will advance to Sunday with a date versus either Virginia or Iowa State?