In Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," the titular character finds himself in sixth century England. Obviously not blending in, he is scheduled to be executed by burning at the stake, because apparently that's how they dealt with weird people back then. Blessed with the best combination of luck and memory this side of Shawn Spencer, he recalls that his execution date happens to fall on the same day as a solar eclipse. He tells the people that he will blot out the sun if they try to execute him, one thing leads to another, and he is eventually spared execution and promoted to the second most powerful position in the kingdom.
Fast forward 1500 years and step into reality and you'll find Coach Mack, in the eyes of some, in a similar position. After dropping the ORU game and 2 of 3 in Hawai'i, some of the less so of the Xavier faithful are ready to call this season a witch and torch it in hopes of making the NIT. Saturday, then, is an execution day of sorts for that portion of the fan base. A fourth loss in five games - with the lone win being a less than convincing triumph over Southern Illinois - would prove to some that it's all over but the crying. Knocking off a highly-rated Bulldogs squad, though, would once again demonstrate that Coach Mack has the power to manipulate the heavenly bodies and send those who would otherwise call for his head scurrying meekly back to their corners.
Standing between Xavier and an optimistic entry into the conference season in Gonzaga. The Zags are currently 10-2 and just coming off a destruction of conference foe Portland on Wednesday that barely even qualifies as a warm-up. The Bulldogs' only two losses have come at Illinois 12/3 and then a week later to Michigan State at home. Other than that, Gonzaga has gotten it done by and large by supplementing an elite offense with a pretty respectable defense.
Since "elite" is more exciting than "pretty respectable," we'll start with the offensive side of things for Gonzaga. The Zags are a really good shooting team, with their eFG% of 52.8% being good for 50th in the nation. About a third of the team's field goal attempts come from behind the arc, where they post an incredibly good 39.3% success rate as a team. Gonzaga boasts four guys who can hurt you from deep at a moments' notice, which is an incredible luxury for a team to have.
It's not all about the deep ball for the Bulldogs though. Their big men combine to post the 14th tallest effective height (basically a measure of how big your tallest guys on the floor are compared to the national average) in the country, coming in a +3.1 inches. This no doubt contributes to their dominance on the glass; the team grabs 37% of its own misses (46th in the nation) while allowing opponents to rebound only 31% of theirs (121st). The final pieces to the offensive puzzle are ball control - the Zags are top 100 in terms of not ending possessions with turnovers and also post an A:TO over one as a team - and getting to the line. Only eight teams get more of their points from the free throw stripe, and only four get to the line more often. Look for the whistles to be a huge factor in Saturday's game.
Robert Sacre isn't Gonzaga's best or most productive player, but he did eviscerate Xavier last year, so I'm going to start with him. The 7'0", 260 pound Canadian gets 12.4/6.5/1.0 with 1.4 blocks per game on a shooting line of .506/.000/.793. Sacre is still recovering from a dislocated thumb, but he was active on the glass at both ends of the court, effective in the paint, and perfect from the line against Portland Wednesday, so I'm going to say that Xavier fans shouldn't expect much of a reprieve in terms of his productivity. Sacre is a veteran player who knows how to make the most of his opportunities (1.80 PPS this year); he may be the best true post player Xavier sees all season.
They don't call the team the Gonzaga Sacres though; the senior center has plenty of help. Junior forward Elias Harris adds 13.1/7.9/1.3 on a shooting line of .476/.458/.596 and is probably the team's most well-rounded player. He's not quite as efficient a scorer as Sacre by virtue of his lesser ability to get himself to the free throw stripe, but he can score the basketball from all over and is as capable of exploding and ripping off a handful of productive possessions as anyone on the roster. Also, at 6'7", 240, he's kind of a matchup nightmare.
Leading the way in terms of scoring, though, is freshman guard Kevin Pangos. You may have heard a little bit about him when he connected on 9-13 from deep in Gonzaga's eight-point victory over Washington State earlier this year. Overall, he gets 14.9/2.6/3.3 with a steal and only 1.5 TO per game. He also shoots .459/.434/.846 and takes care of primary ball-handling duties for the team. About the only thing he doesn't offer is size; at around 6'0", 180, he's not going to be able to physically overpower Xavier's guards. On the offensive end, though, he poses a threat from very deep and spends a lot of time with the ball in his hands.
Other interesting guards for the Zags include Gary Bell, who was highly-touted out of high school and is posting 8.4 PPG and shooting 40.9% from three to back it up. David Stockton get 6.5/1.1/2.7 per and posts a very good 1.81 PPS. He's only shot 43 times on the year though, and is more about ball distribution that putting up points. Mike Hart doesn't get much out of his 20 minutes per game offensively, but he's a good rebounding guard and - at 6'6", 206 - may end up being the Bulldogs' answer to the question of containing Dezmine Wells on the wing.
Closer to the tin (as it were), 6'9", 248 Sam Dower adds bulk and 8.0/3.9/0.5 to the Gonzaga lineup. He is also the only reserve forward who has played in all 12 of Gonzaga's games. Conspicuous by his absence is Mathis Monninghoff, the 6'7" German who got 13 minutes per game and shot over 45% from deep last year. This year, he has been squeezed to the bench more often and is shooting .214/.250/.000 in 5.8 minutes per game with three DNP's under his belt. I doubt Monninghoff forget how to play ball over the summer so, like Brad Redford, I'm going to go ahead and say that he has the potential to be more dangerous than his season-to-date numbers would indicate.
Defensively, Gonzaga doesn't do anything exceptionally well except keep other teams from getting to the foul line, but their defense is good by virtue of not having any real weaknesses. They are a tick above average in opponents' eFG%, forcing turnovers, and protecting the glass. The only defensive category in which the Zags crack the top 100 is ending opponents' possessions with steals, which they do 10.8% of the time. If they have a weakness on defense, it's behind the arc; opponents' 34.1% mark from deep is bang-on national average.
-Is Dez Wells ready to go? I had the Friday before Christmas and the Monday after it off of work. When I returned to my place of employ after this four-day hiatus, I spent a good ten minutes trying to remember which passwords went to which programs. When Xavier v. Gonzaga tips off on Saturday, it will have been three weeks plus a handful of hours since Dezmine Wells donned his Xavier uni and played an actual game. In the interim, he has practiced, sure, but he's also had finals, had time off for Christmas, and stayed home while the team spent almost a week in Hawai'i. Nothing prepares you for a game like a game, and Wells hasn't had one in quite a while. Xavier needs him to have retained a good deal of his sharpness and be prepared to play from the word go against the Bulldogs.
-Are the Zags beneficiaries of home cooking? Gonzaga has played one true road game this season, and it was that loss at Illinois we mentioned above. Other than that, they've enjoyed the comforts of their own building nine times and played at a neutral court twice. Not only is it simply easier to win a game when you woke up in your own bed that morning, but Gonzaga's massive disparity in getting to the line as opposed to putting their opponents on it may be in some part thanks to their currently home-heavy schedule. The Cintas Center is one of the toughest venues to visit in NCAA hoops; if Xavier can put Gonzaga on the back foot early, the unfriendly confines of a hostile arena may be enough to shake the Zags.
-Can Xavier establish a reliable interior game? Kenny Frease has seemed to be the target of Xavier's early sets recently, but he has become less of a focal point of the offense as the game has gone on. Travis Taylor and Andre Walker have both been more opportunistic scorers than true go-to guys inside. To take pressure off of Lyons and Holloway and open up space for Redford and Martin outside, it would really help if Xavier was able to make opponents respect their ability to score the basketball in the paint.
-Kenny Frease, keep your hands to yourself. Kenny Frease is the only player Xavier has who is a physical matchup for Gonzaga's seven-footer. Last time these two teams faced off, Frease was in constant foul trouble and Sacre spent so much time at the line that he could have filed for residency and been eligible to represent it in the Olympics. This year, only a handful of players in division one basketball are getting to the line more efficiently than Sacre, and he is converting 79% of his free throw attempts. If Frease again contrives to send Sacre to the line and himself to the bench on a regular basis, this could be a long game for the Musketeers.
-Clean it up. Xavier has been sloppy with the little things over the duration of the year, if we're being honest. Silly turnovers, inability to convert from the free throw line, and - more recently - lack of attention paid to defensive assignments have all contributed to the struggles the Muskies have had. A team with this much talent doesn't have to make two incredible comebacks because it's getting outplayed; Xavier has dug its own holes this year. A much sharper performance is called for against Gonzaga, and it would also be a nice way to set the tone for the conference season.
-Check the perimeter. Kevin Pangos has made more three-point baskets than any two Muskies combined. Harris and Bell each hit more than 40% of their threes, and Stockton hits more than 50% of his. Gonzaga doesn't depend on the three for all of their scoring - their percentage of points from behind the arc is exactly the national average - but there's nothing like a couple of quick buckets from deep to shift the momentum of the game and quiet an impassioned crowd. The Bulldogs will get their share of points from deep, but Xavier's guards need to make that process as arduous as possible.
Gonzaga is a talented and well-drilled team that is catching Xavier at what is hopefully the nadir of the Musketeers' season. This last non-conference contest before the Atlantic Ten season kicks off is especially pivotal this year. A victory will send the resounding message that Xavier is back to full strength and their recent travails have been nothing more than the residue of the post-brawl discipline. A loss will further sully X's once unassailable home record and intensify the questions regarding what may be wrong with the team. Xavier's strength of schedule number won't be climbing as the conference season progresses, but nothing helps the old Pomeroy rating/Sagarin number/RPI/your favorite metric here like winning basketball games. Xavier can renew its claim to high hopes for the season Saturday against Gonzaga, but another loss will leave lingering doubts about the team even as conference wins start piling up.