By Jim Meehan The Spokesman-Review
SAN DIEGO — Think Oklahoma State, Memphis and Arkansas, but taller, stronger and fully invested at the defensive end.
Gonzaga faces its biggest challenge of the season in an NCAA tournament round-of-32 showdown tonight with No. 1-seeded Arizona at Viejas Arena.
The Wildcats (31-4) win with defense, which stands up statistically with any in the country but looks even more impressive close up.
“They’re athletic across the board, from point guard to center,” Bulldogs senior forward Sam Dower Jr. said. “I don’t think we’ve played a team like Arizona this year.”
GU (29-6), bidding for its first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2009, must solve Arizona’s pack-line defense, a system pioneered by former Washington State coach Dick Bennett. The Wildcats swatted away 12 Weber State shots in Friday’s win.
“That’s the best defensive team I’ve faced since I’ve been at Weber,” eighth-year coach Randy Rahe said. “I’m telling you, they’re hard to score on, man.”
The Wildcats have allowed 70 or more points only three times this season, twice to UCLA. They limit foes to 37.9-percent shooting, 31.8 percent beyond the 3-point arc. They yielded an uncharacteristic 13 offensive rebounds to Weber State, but their season average is plus-8.2 on the glass.
“The more you watch you’re just so impressed with every possession how they defend,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Nothing ever comes easy and they just don’t seem to have many breakdowns.”
Gonzaga, which relied on 43 points from starting guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. in Friday’s win over Oklahoma State, probably won’t stray from its inside-outside approach. Przemek Karnowski will go up against a fellow 7-footer, Kaleb Tarczewski. Dower will match-up with 6-9 freshman Aaron Gordon.
The Wildcats don’t have as much interior depth after losing standout forward Brandon Ashley in early February to a season-ending foot injury. It took some time to adjust, but guard Gabe York was inserted into the starting lineup and Gordon slid over to his more natural position of power forward.
Arizona has a thorough scouting report on GU. Wildcats coach Sean Miller’s younger brother Archie coached Dayton past the Zags in Maui and upset Syracuse on Saturday to reach the Sweet 16.
“The pack-line defense is man-to-man that is played on a string in help-side, in the gaps,” Gordon said. “It really looks like a zone if you’re playing it well enough. It’s in your face.”
That’s precisely what Arizona will try to do against the Bulldogs, who have strong numbers offensively: 35th in scoring (77.1), 8th in 3-point percentage (39.7) and 6th in field-goal percentage (49.8).
“If you play off them, they’re going to find shooters and their big men,” guard T.J. McConnell said. “If we pressure the ball, it’ll be harder for them to get into their stuff.”
The Zags have identified several areas they consider advantageous, but they know they’ll need to be at their best.
“They’re prepared to take away your plays, your strengths and they’re disciplined,” said assistant Brian Michaelson, who had the Arizona scout. “A lot of teams have that plan and they lose focus. I haven’t seen them lose that focus at all.
“They don’t give you easy shots. The thing that impressed me as much as anything is how well they contest shots.”