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Gonzaga. Fun to Say, Fun to Play

Fellow SB Nation blog The Slipper Still Fits sent me a list of questions to answer for the site, which should be up sometime tomorrow. The first one, however, got me thinking a bit:

The last time these two programs played was in 2006 at the Preseason NIT. Although many of the players are the same, what similarities and difference are there between the UNC team that season, and the one that Gonzaga will play on Friday?

If you flash back to the box score of that game, you'll see a lot of the same names as you will tomorrow, so it's a valid question. But it's amazing how different this team is from November 2006. 

The most glaring change, of course, is that Ty Lawson hadn't yet won the starting job from Bobby Frasor. In fact, half the players that took the court that day (Lawson, Ellington, Deon Thompson and the now absent Brandan Wright and Alex Stepheson) were playing in their fourth college game ever, with the previous three being the mighty powerhouses of Sacred Heart, Winthrop, and Gardner-Webb. Tyler Hansbrough hadn't figured out how to play with the new kids, either, taking only five shots all game. Meanwhile, Bobby Frasor took nine. When was the last time that ever happened?

Gonzaga doesn't have many of the same faces from 2006 on the court today. There's Josh Heytvelt, the power forward who so effectively contained Hansbrough back in New York, and guards Jeremy Pargo and Matt Bouldin. They've mostly been eclipsed by the sophomore center Austin Dye, who takes most of the shots and corrals most of the rebounds. He also leads the team in blocks, rejecting shots at an Ed Davis-like pace. 

The Bulldogs are a tall, deliberative team, built around an outstanding defense and a strong offense that makes shots and doesn't turn the ball over. The problem is it that these stats were built up against a mostly creampuff conference schedule; St. Mary's is the only league opponent in Ken Pomeroy's Top 100, and the Zags success against good teams out of conference has been decidedly mixed. They ran through Oklahoma State, Maryland and Tennessee in the Old Spice Classic back in November, but struggled through December in losses to Connecticut, Portland State, and Utah. Their biggest chance to redeem themselves was a February match with Memphis, where they were never competitive.

So which team is going to show up, the world-beaters of November or the more recent vintage that has been less than impressive in the first two rounds of the tournament? I'd expect the former rather than the latter, but either team will have one glaring weakness against the Heels - a lack of depth. The Bulldogs have a huge drop-off in minutes played after the first six, and only eight players have made appearances in all 33 games. They'll have to slow the game way down to stay on the court with Carolina, otherwise it'll be just like the LSU game, with the Heels pulling away in the second half and coasting to the finish. There's no repeat of New York this time.