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Xavier v. Gonzaga: NCAA tournament Elite Eight preview, matchups, keys to the game

In 12 hours, one of these teams will be on its way to its first Final Four.

West Virginia v Gonzaga
I hope this guy is secretly allergic to Final Fours and throws Elite Eight games.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

March 28, 2004. Duke 66-63 Xavier. I’m still not ready to talk about this one.

March 29, 2008. UCLA 76-57 Xavier. This one doesn’t make me that mad. A Xavier team that I loved dearly took me on a great ride, but that UCLA team was loaded with future NBA players. As the man said to Ross Geller, “Sometimes monkeys die.” I’ve made my peace with this game.

March 25, 2017. Gonzaga. Xavier.

The Zags have only lost once this year, earning themselves the one seed the carry into this game. They dispatched South Dakota State in a perfunctory manner in the first round and jumped out to a 22-8 lead on Northwestern in a second round game that was basically over from that point. They were really only challenged by West Virginia, hanging on for a 61-58 win as WVa. came up empty on a handful of three-point attempts on the final possession.

We all know how Xavier got here. Here’s what they’ll be going up against.

Team fingerprint

It starts on defense for Gonzaga, where they hold their opponents to a staggering 39.7% shooting from inside the arc. Their EFG% of 41.3 and their adjusted DRtg of 86.6 are both first in the nation. They also smother the glass and keep opponents off the line well enough to rank in the top 50 in both areas and run teams off the arc like nobody’s business, ranking 5th in the nation in 3P% against and in the top 50 in limiting attempts. Great news though: they don’t force that many turnovers! When the opponent can’t score with the ball, why gamble for anything?

Their offense is also elite. Have I mentioned they’re the number one overall team in KenPom? They’re really good at both ends.

Anyway, they like to push the pace and get the ball into the paint. They’re 4th in the nation in 2P%, shooting 57.6% from inside the arc. They’re a solid three-point shooting team (37.4%), but they take fewer than a third of their shots from outside. About the only “weakness” the Bulldogs have on the offensive end is the glass, where their OReb% is near as makes no difference the national average.

Starters

Starting matchups
Nigel Williams-Goss Point Guard Quentin Goodin
Junior Class Freshman
6'3", 195 Measurements 6'4", 190
16.5/5.9/4.7 Game line 5/1.9/3.5
0.496/0.353/0.895 Shooting line 0.349/0.26/0.557
Williams-Goss is one of the best guards in the nation. He distributes without turning the ball over and is a very good defender. When he's looking to score, he'll do it mostly off the dribble and more often with his nasty pull-up game than by getting all the way to the rim. He hasn't been dominant during the tournament.
Josh Perkins Shooting Guard J.P. Macura
Sophomore Class Junior
6'3", 190 Measurements 6'5", 203
8.1/2.2/3.3 Game line 14.3/4.4/2.9
0.421/0.399/0.723 Shooting line 0.423/0.339/0.786
The only underclassman in the starting lineup, Perkins is mostly a spot-up shooter. He can put the ball on the deck and create a bit, but he becomes turnover prone when he strays too far from his comfort zone. His 17.3% assist rate is second on the team and the exact same as JP's.
Jordan Mathews Small Forward Malcolm Bernard
Senior Class Senior
6'4", 203 Measurements 6'6", 202
10.7/3.3/1.5 Game line 6.6/4.1/1.5
0.415/0.391/0.726 Shooting line 0.425/0.404/0.614
Mathews loves to (a) catch the ball and then (b) shoot it. Two-thirds of his attempts come from deep, where he's a reliable threat. He's mediocre at the rim and in the mid-range, next to non-existent on the glass, and will neither distribute nor turn over the basketball at a meaningful rate. He knows what he is and he stays in his lane.
Johnathan Williams Power Forward Trevon Bluiett
Junior Class Junior
6'9", 228 Measurements 6'6", 215
10.1/6.6/0.8 Game line 18.7/5.6/2.1
0.59/0.389/0.579 Shooting line 0.445/0.377/0.758
He shoots one three a game, so don't ruin your nap thinking about that 3P%. His effective range is fairly tight to the rim. He's a really good rebounder on both ends and a good rim protector. He also gets to the line a lot for a guy who doesn't draw an inordinate amount of fouls. You can look at his shooting line and decide how much that concerns you.
Przemek Karnowski Center Tyrique Jones
Senior Class Freshman
7'1", 300 Measurements 6'9", 237
12.4/5.9/1.9 Game line 4.2/3.1/0.3
0.602/0/0.588 Shooting line 0.595/0/0.488
No question the school is losing money on this dude's meal plan. If he catches the ball in deep post position, he's likely to score, draw a foul, or both. He only plays 23 minutes a game, but he's a handful to stop during that time. He's a good but not great rebounder and blocks his share of shots. Gonzaga can keep him fresh because they have another 7' center off the bench.

Reserves

Gonzaga brings Silas Melson off the bench first. Melson is a 6-4 junior guard who shoots 37.5% from deep but doesn't use the ball a lot. He's there to play defense and not turn it over. Zach Collins, another seven footer, is next. Collins is even more efficient than Karnowski, approaches 10% with his block rate, and rebounds like a monster. Killian Tillie is a 6-10 post who functions something as a Karnowski/Collins in a slightly smaller, slightly less talented form. Both he and Collins will step back and shoot it on rare occasions. No one else is likely to come off the Bulldog bench for much more than spot duty.

Three questions

- How will the game be called? Gonzaga throws the ball inside more and more effectively than anyone in college basketball. Xavier's bigs are going to be a vital part of the defense tonight. A tight whistle could mean serious trouble, because this isn't a team where Bernard or Bluiett on a big man is likely to work for long. By the same token, both Collins and Tillie are likely to rack up some fouls themselves.

- Can Xavier get to the line and convert? While Collins and Tillie may commit fouls, no one else really does. The Zags were 13th in the nation in not allowing opponents to turn field goal attempts into free throw attempts. Xavier was decent at getting to the line against a similarly stingy Arizona team, but their 4-9 performance from the stripe in the second half bordered on horrifying in terms of its emotional impact. One other thing to note: the home team tends to get the whistle. That's not conspiracy or an accusation of institutional cheating, just a statistical proven fact. Gonzaga will likely have the larger contingent of fans, much like Arizona did. It bears watching.

- Who steps up to help Trevon? There's no question about whether Xavier needs a huge game out of Trevon Bluiett. They do, they always do. Against Arizona Malcolm Bernard picked up the slack with 15 points in the second half, Sean O'Mara continued his March to remember, and JP went for the least talked about 14/7/5 in quite some time. Someone, or maybe those three guys again, is going to have to be similarly good tonight.

Three keys

- Be mean on the glass: Gonzaga doesn't go to the offensive glass that hard usually, but they may after seeing what Arizona did. X must limit the Bulldogs to one shot possessions but get second chances on the other end. That's going to be uphill sledding, but the Musketeers have the dogs to compete on the glass. They have to this game, because Gonzaga's stifling defense isn't likely to allow a shooting clinic.

- Trust the system: Against Arizona Coach Mack packed the defense in and dared the Wildcats to beat X from deep. When Trier got hot, that very nearly happened. The Musketeers kept discipline though, and they got the stops when they needed them. Look for more zone tonight, because the Zags also don't love shooting the three. (Like Arizona though, they certainly can). Relying on the rotating defenses and not panicking if a string of shots go down is going to be key for Xavier tonight.

- Ride the magic: X couldn't lose to DePaul and they didn't. They had to beat Butler, and they did. After that came Melo Trimble with all his hype, then the bouncing, high energy Seminoles. The Musketeers were down eight with 3:40 to play against Arizona and they pulled that one off, too. There have been reasons on paper to doubt X in almost all of those games, and there are again tonight. Each time, though, Xavier has pulled out the win through game planning, shot making when needed, and that little bit of magic that every team needs. Why not more of it tonight?