(Image – Johnnie Izquierdo – Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame)
For all intents and purposes, the college basketball season starts in earnest for the UVA basketball program Saturday afternoon when they tip off against top-ranked Gonzaga. Due respect to Towson, San Francisco, St. Francis, Kent State, and William & Mary, but the Wahoos are yet to play the caliber of team that they’ll have to beat to be successful this season. With this Gonzaga game scheduled to make up for the lost matchups with Florida, Michigan State, and Villanova, the ‘Hoos will face a massive step up in level of competition. And, boy, isn’t that refreshing?
What Gonzaga has done so far
The Zags are the definitive national favorite right now. With wins over #3 Kansas, #4 Iowa, and #7 West Virginia, their resume is unparalleled. That list of wins is much closer to a top-five team’s resume in March than a team’s in late December. They’re undoubtedly incredibly battle tested and proven to be the best team in the nation at this moment in time.
Breaking Gonzaga down
The Zags are very talented. With star point guard Jalen Suggs as the team’s best player, lights out shooter and stretch-four Corey Kispert, skilled big man Drew Timme, and talented big guards Joel Ayayi and Andrew Nembhard, Gonzaga boasts a starting five of studs.
That said, that label only extends to their five best players and, likely, starters. Mark Few’s rotation really only extends to a seven man group as he uses athletic four Anton Watson as the likely sixth man and backup point guard Aaron Cook as the only other players to get real minutes. Nonetheless, with the five guys the Zags rely on, there’s no significant need for bench contribution.
Gonzaga’s offense vs UVA’s defense
On the offensive side of the ball, the Zags want to push in transition with quick outlet passes to wings streaking down the court, or off downhill drives from Suggs and occasionally Ayayi who then work to find backdoor cutters or shooters on the perimeter.
Once in settled offense, Gonzaga’s schemes are based on ball screens and dribble hand-offs. They like to use a continuity ball screen offense to allow various guards to attack off wing ball screens while incorporating their bigs who can threaten defenses from deep. Additionally, they’ll run straight up high ball screens for Suggs a great deal as both Timme and Kispert are both dangerous as poppers while Timme adds the bonus of an inside post presence. Really, the Zags don’t run a complicated offense; they rely on their offensive skills to beat any defensive ability or system. And — the thing is — they’ve got the talent to do just that.
Of course, while their offense is potent, they count on superior skill rather than strength or size. Timme, at 6’10” 235 is Gonzaga’s only real physically imposing player. But he’s fairly slow footed, lacks much bulk, and has near-to-no bounciness. Suggs, at 6’4”, is a big point guard and utilizes his wingspan and the strength he does have as a slasher, but his game is still more finesse-based than anything else.
For that reason, Virginia’s defensive system should be able to survive against the Zags. Some of the ‘Hoos better on ball defenders like Morsell and Clark will hope to disrupt Suggs enough to stunt Gonzaga’s offense. Then, outside of Suggs, there aren’t any significant mismatches on that side of the ball. Huff has the length, quickness, and hops to contain Timme; Hauser should be able to stay with Kispert to a certain extent; Murphy will hope to utilize his length to disrupt Ayayi; then whoever the guard not matched up with Suggs will be tasked with staying in front of Nembhard.
This isn’t to say that the Zags won’t light up the UVA defense; rather, it’s clear that, for such a good offense, this Virginia defense should be able to hang off their talent as individual defenders, yes, but more so off the structure of the packline. Hard hedges from Huff and the other bigs, if executed effectively, should disrupt Suggs who prefers attacking downhill rather than maneuvering side-to-side. Additionally, if the ‘Hoos can get back on defense quickly, they’ll be able to pack it in and slow the Zags’ transition offense down. This will force Gonzaga to play settled offense where, ideally, the packline system will survive the onslaught of talent it’ll face.
UVA’s offense vs Gonzaga’s defense
The defensive side of the ball is where Gonzaga has actually struggled this season. They’re allowing 77.0 points per game and 1.01 points per possession to opponents. Their frontcourt of Timme and Kispert is lacking defensively, and, while bench pieces Watson and Oumar Ballo provide athleticism on that end, they both are minuses offensively so neither of them are used in much volume. Suggs, Ayayi, and Nembhard are lengthy and more disciplined than their froncourt teammates. But, none of them are necessarily shut-down defenders. Additionally, Kispert’s and Timme’s slow-footedness is exploitable off ball screens with guards looking to go downhill, penetrate, and find shooters on the perimeter.
Nevertheless, expect to see a heavy dose of mover blocker/sides from Virginia as they’ll be concerned about the guards’ ability to beat their men off the dribble in the 5-out/read and react set, and Gonzaga’s length on the perimeter will make the ball screen sets less dependable in any considerable volume. Sides will allow the ‘Hoos to wear down the Zags and slow them down in transition. Additionally, they can still run ball screens and more complex sets out of the sides structure.
UVA will win if:
The ‘Hoos survive defensively. Realistically, they need to hold the Zags to fewer than 70 points to have a real shot. Jay Huff will need to have a big game on both ends. He’ll be responsible for guarding Timme, and then will have to take advantage of Gonzaga’s weaknesses in the defensive front court. UVA will also need to be better on the defensive boards and absolutely has to get back on defense. The ‘Hoos will also need to be hot shooting the ball as the Zags’ individual defensive talent and athleticism on the perimeter is far superior to any other team the Wahoos have matched up against this season.
Gonzaga will win if:
The Zags can push the ball in transition while executing in their set offense. They’ll need to exploit some of Virginia’s weaker defensive players like Hauser and potentially even Huff in ball screen situations while also hoping that Suggs can punish a Wahoo backcourt that doesn’t have a go-to lockdown defender on the wing. Defensively, Gonzaga will want to use their length on the perimeter to make life difficult for the Virginia guards and help quickly when UVA tries to attack with their bigs.
Score prediction: Gonzaga 72 – Virginia 66
On their best day, the ‘Hoos are absolutely capable of beating this Gonzaga team. Frankly, they matchup with the Zags fairly well. That said, it’s still early in the year and Virginia is yet to play a team that has talent that is anywhere in the vicinity of this Gonzaga roster. It’ll be close for a while, but the Zags will pull out in the end.
Make sure to stay tuned to the Locker Room Access blog and this story for the link to the Locker Room Access LIVE Pregame Show where we’ll have Reece Beekman and Jalen Suggs’ former AAU Coach Steve Smith on along with a panel of Mark Jerome, Doug Smith, Chris Havlicek, Phony Bennett, and yours truly. You can also find the show LIVE on the Locker Room Access Facebook Page.