When Gonzaga and Southern Methodist saw that they were scheduled to play in late February, I’m sure neither team expected then to be in the position they are now. SMU is banned from postseason play, and Gonzaga desperately needs a win to boost their tournament resume. SMU is mostly playing for pride at this point in the season, but they would surely love nothing more than to beat the Zags and steal the Bulldogs’ chance for a quality win. Gonzaga, on the other hand, needs to approach tomorrow as a must win game. It’s a game Gonzaga essentially needs much more than SMU, because the Zags as of now have no marquee win to hang their hat on. A win over a top 20 team on the road would boost Gonzaga’s chances for the NCAA Tournament instantly. For the first time in 17 years, Gonzaga is in jeopardy of missing the NCAA’s, which is unfamiliar territory for the Zags. This win would go a long way in helping them make the field.
However, both teams are heading in different directions coming into the matchup. SMU (20-3) has lost three of their last five and are stumbling a bit of late. The Ponies were 18-0 just two weeks ago, and the lone undefeated team in the NCAA. They are coming off a rare home loss to Tulsa on Wednesday night, and they could use a win to get back on track. Gonzaga, though, has been really hot of late, as they are on a six game winning streak. The Zags (20-5) have been rolling on all cylinders since their last loss two weeks ago.
The key players to watch in the game will be SMU’s point guard, Nic Moore, and power forward Kyle Wiltjer for Gonzaga. Moore leads SMU at 16.3 points per game, while Wiltjer averages almost 22 points per game for the Zags. Moore and Wiltjer are midseason candidates for the Wooden Award, which goes to college basketball’s best player each year.
Two more players to watch are Markus Kennedy for SMU and Domantas Sabonis for Gonzaga. Both power forwards will be key on the backboard for each of their teams on Saturday. Offensive and defensive rebounding could be the difference in this game. Jordan Tolbert, another forward for SMU, is one of the best offensive rebounders for the Mustangs and in the country. Gonzaga will have their hands full trying to keep him off the glass. Sabonis and Wiltjer, though, are easily the best frontcourt SMU has played all season long. It will be interesting to see how the SMU forwards match up with those of Gonzaga. The X-factor in the game, though, may just be Gonzaga’s guards and whether they can contain Nic Moore of SMU; if they can shut him down and get production from their big guys, then they could pull off the road upset.
One thing to note, though, is that all five of Gonzaga’s losses are by five points or less, including two games lost by a single point. The Zags are a few breaks away from being undefeated and ranked in the polls. Even though no one is talking about the Zags this season, SMU needs to be aware of how good Gonzaga is. SMU is no pushover, though, and they are probably the best team Gonzaga has seen all year. Their athleticism and frontcourt play is something Gonzaga doesn’t usually see in WCC Play.
This game ought to be fun with two high powered offenses, and it may be close from start to finish. Gonzaga needs a win, while SMU is trying to play spoiler. Expect the Zags to play with desperation tomorrow, making them surprisingly dangerous.