If you’re reading this, then you already know that the Heels welcome Gonzaga to Chapel Hill tonight. In preparation for big game, I answered some questions for the fine humans over at The Slipper Still Fits, the SB Nation site for the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Their manager Peter Woodburn returned the favor by answering the same questions.
Below are his answers. Hope you enjoy.
THB: The Zags don’t have the defense of either Texas or Michigan. What does Gonzaga need to accomplish defensively to pull off the win?
PW: The Zags need to learn how to play defense for 40 minutes in a game. Against Tennessee, Gonzaga came out looking downright atrocious, and it really looked like the Vols were going to run away with the game. About eight minutes in, there was a defensive clamp down, and Gonzaga was right back in the game.
That has been the recurring theme throughout games all year. The Zags’ depth is a bit stressed because of injuries to Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall, but a lot of the defensive mistakes aren’t coming from tiredness, but more lack of awareness. I’m not sure trying to dial it in at North Carolina is the cure for all troubles, but we will see. Gonzaga’s defense is only ranked outside the top-50, but at times, it can play like a top 10. The question is always for how long.
THB: Which Tar Heel do you think presents the biggest matchup issue for Gonzaga?
PW: I’d agree with your assessment and put it at Cam Johnson and Nassir Little. Starting with Johnson, his size and his ability to stretch the floor is going to be problematic – especially if he isolates himself against Rui Hachimura. Rui, for as great and fun of a player as he is, sometimes slacks off on players as they drift out to the three point line. Most forwards won’t burn you too often from there, but Johnson isn’t most forwards.
It is nice to see Roy Williams bringing in Little a bit more slowly, because his size, athleticism, and everything about him show how problematic he is against not only Gonzaga, but all teams. Hopefully, ol’ Roy will stick to the roughly 20 minutes of game play and that is all Gonzaga will be forced to suffer.
THB: North Carolina enjoys pushing the pace, is there any way the Zags can slow it down?
PW: The big takeaway in the Duke game from the Duke point of view was that Gonzaga has to play it perfectly in the first half to come away with the win. It is true, the Zags hit shots, but a lot of that came from taking away the ability of the Duke freshmen to hit the floor running in transition. If the Zags are playing the smart level offense, passing the ball, taking the easy shots, and not pulling up for three pointers with 30 seconds left in the shot clock, aka the Zach Norvell special, it takes away the ability for the Tar Heels to push the pace.
Against Duke, the Zags did exactly that, and they flat-out dictated the pace of play for the first half. If Gonzaga can do that, and build up enough a lead, I think they can squeeze out the win here.
THB: These two teams are very evenly matched. What are some aspects of North Carolina’s squad that bring worry as a Gonzaga fan?
PW: The strength of the offense and the speed of the offense is definitely going to be an issue. As said above, Gonzaga’s defense has been off and on this year, and North Carolina, in that atmosphere, is probably a harder challenge than playing Duke in Maui a month ago. It will be a really interesting test for the Zags.
The tempo is really the bigger problem, however. When the Zags lost Killian Tillie, their frontcourt depth took a huge blow. Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura are dudes. After them, you have Jeremy Jones, a redshirt senior who has earned his minutes every year, and Filip Petrusev, a freshman still learning the ropes. The injury to Geno Crandall is the bigger issue, because after Josh Perkins, the Zags don’t really have a true point guard on the squad. If this team was fully healthy, I’d have no worries about the Zags galloping up and down the court. As it stands now, they don’t have the legs for it, and if North Carolina dictates the pace for the full 40 minutes, the Zags will be left gasping for breath.
THB: Final score prediction?
PW: I think it’ll be a high-scoring game, and I’m taking North Carolina as the favorites here. If this game was in Spokane, I’d take the Zags – that is how evenly these teams match up. UNC 95, Zags 90.
We appreciate Peter taking the time to give us some insight. The ‘Zags are one of the few programs that most UNC fans have a high respect and admiration for (I think). Now we just have to hope that tonight’s game isn’t marred by the same atrocious officiating that was on display in their last meeting.