Thoughts From the Nosebleed Seats

I wasn’t even this close.  Try two rows from the top.

When the brackets were released this Sunday, I was outraged initially.  I couldn’t believe that they had been bumped to an 8 seed and had to play in Buffalo.  But then, I realized they were playing in Buffalo.  I am half-from Buffalo!  Fortunately, we were able to come across 2 extra tickets, and I was able to attend my first NCAA Tournament game.  A Gonzaga victory, no less.

Florida State worried me going into this match-up because of their defensive abilities.  I didn’t want Gonzaga to have to play a perimeter-oriented game because they can be so inconsistent from outside.  Even from the top row, I could see just how big the Seminoles’ front line was.  Solomon Alabi and Chris Singleton are MEN.  The Zags were going to need big games out of Robert Sacre and Elias Harris inside to neutralize their size, and they answered the bell.

Right from the get-go, Sacre made his prescence felt.  He converted two and-ones and got Gonzaga off to a good start.  It also helped that Florida State ran absolutely no offense when they had the ball.  My vantage point was perfect to see the spacing of the floor, and FSU looked so stagnant that first half.  Gonzaga came out with a plan to try and keep it out of the paint and away from the basket.  The guards were going under every screen set on the perimeter, just begging their guards to shoot.  FSU took the bait often, or threw poor entry passes in to their bigs. 

Gonzaga took advantage and even bailed out the Seminoles a few times.  The Zags failed to convert on two or three breakaways that should have been easy scores off of FSU turnovers.  They did run a very patient offense and were able to exploit Florida State from the mid-range and beyond.  Elias Harris stepped outside and nailed some jumpers, Steven Gray came out shooting, and Demetri Goodson was sneaking through the defense for layups.  Gonzaga went in to the half up 35-19, and it looked like FSU wasn’t going to be able to create enough offense to get back in this game.

But create offense they did.  Gonzaga came out and got the lead up to 18, exploiting Matt Bouldin’s size advantage with some nice post-ups.  Then things started to slowly unravel.  The ‘Noles started to run some sets, started penetrating Gonzaga’s defense, and set up some easy baskets for their post players.  The lead slowly started to evaporate with each TV timeout (which are even longer when you are at the event) and I grew more uneasy with each passing minute. 

Florida State also caught fire from beyond the arc in the second half.  They hit 5 or their 6 three-pointers in the final 20 minutes, including 3 by Deivydas Dulkys (WHO???) that silenced the small Gonzaga contingency.  The mostly pro-Syracuse fans in the building gravitated towards Florida State’s comeback.  The Dulkys threes sent the place into a frenzy.  The lead got down to as little as 4 with over 2 minutes remaining.  Visions of UCLA in 2006 were dancing in my head. NOT AGAIN!  

The thing that saved Gonzaga was their set offenses after time outs.  Gonzaga got two easy scores to quell momentum temporarily and just keep the deficit wide enough.  Another key to holding off the run was the play of Steven Gray and Matt Bouldin.  They really didn’t force the action down the stretch, they held the young group together, and made big plays when they needed too.  That jumper that Gray hit from the top of the key as the shot clock expired was insane.

The biggest play of the game came at the 6-minute mark.  Gonzaga had gone cold, letting a 13-point lead get down to 7 in a span of three minutes.  They were playing sloppy, not taking good shots, and letting FSU dictate the pace.  Off a Gray turnover, the Noles had an easy break and were ready to cement an 8-0 run.  Elias Harris comes out of NOWHERE and blocks Luke Loucks’s lay-up to preserve the score.  Sacre gets fouled at the other end and converts the free throws to put the lead back at 9 and give the Zags some breathing room.

The unsung hero of the night was Demitri Goodson.  Going in, I didn’t know which Meech was going to show up.  He needed to have a very controlled game for the Zags to have a chance, and he did.  He worked the offense, picked his spots, and most importantly, he made his free throws.  A 53% free throw shooter over the regular season, Meech nailed 5-6 from the line, including three down the stretch.  You also can’t appreciate the defensive pressure thet Goodson applies unless you watch him in person.  He is all over the perimiter hounding all of the guards.

The nice thing about this ticket was the opportunity to watch Gonzaga’s next opponent: Syracuse.  Granted, they were playing Vermont, but the Orange looked very dangerous.  Even without Arinze Onuaku, Syracuse has plenty of size to create mismatches.  Rick Jackson is a beast of a forward/center, and Kris Joseph plays much bigger than 6’7” at times.  Meech will be able to match the quickness of ’Cuse points Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine, even if he gives up a little bit of size.  

The difference is going to be Gonzaga’s ability to guard Wes Johnson and Andy Rautins.  It seems like Elias Harris would be the perfect player to match up with him, but he will have his hands busy with Joseph.  Steven Gray, at 6’5”, is the only other person that I can see hanging with Johnson.  Rautins provides another mismatch for this Gonzaga defense.  I don’t know if Matt Bouldin has the quickness to stay with Rautins, who is just as potent off the bounce as he is from downtown.  It is a shame that Mangisto Arop broke his foot, because at 6’6” he has the athleticism and strength to guard either of these guys.

Vermont did a pretty poor job of penetrating Syracuse’s zone.  The guards slide so quickly and take away those driving lanes.  The back of the zone can push the offense out of their comfort zone.  The Orange can fall asleep, as they let Vermont cut the deficit to twelve at the break, but they came out with a vengeance in the second half with a barrage of threes.  The Zags will have to do a better job of contesting the three, especially Rautins and Johnson, if they want to win.

A few other keys for the Zags if they want to pull of this upset:

  1. More contribution from the bench.  All 67 points last night came from the starters.  The bench players didn’t even put up a shot!  I know that Bol Kong’s shooting touch can come in handy to try and bust that Syracuse zone.
  2. Stay out of foul trouble.  Gonzaga did a great job of this against Florida State.  Sacre picked up his third relatively early, but the rest of the team did a good job of to keep the fouls down.  This will be key against Syracuse.
  3. Get Syracuse in foul trouble.  Mark Few mentioned this on the CBS pregame show.  Without Onuaku, Syracuse is basically down to 6 players.  If Gonzaga can get players like Jackson, Rautins, and Johnson in foul trouble, Boeheim will be forced to put in some inexperienced players.
  4. Cut down on the turnovers.  Gonzaga committed 15 turnovers last night, and Syracuse thrives off forcing turnovers and getting easy break opportunities.  The Zags need to avoid traps in the corners and be strong with the ball on drives to the basket to avoid giving the Orange easy buckets.
  5. Play with confidence.  During that second half, a nice fan sitting next to me at the game pointed out that Gonzaga ”wasn’t playing to win, rather playing not to lose.”  It was very true.  This has always been a problem with Gonzaga teams.  Once they get a lead, it has been hard for these  Bulldog teams to really go for the kill and put the game out of reach.  If Gonzaga gets out to a lead early, they need to keep up that same intensity throughout and not let is slip away.

It was an amazing experience watching Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament.  I doubt I will be able to scrounge up a ticket for tomorrow’s game, since there are thousands of Syracuse fans all in search of seats.  Either way, I couldn’t have enjoyed my time more.  It will be more enjoyable if Gonzaga can pull off this upset, which I think they very well could.