Gonzaga nearly became the first team in NCAA history to lose a first-round game as a No. 1 seed. Was that a fluke against a Southern squad that outplayed their low expectations, or a sign of further failure ahead for the WCC champion?
Much was made of Gonzaga earning a No. 1 seed. Sure, they went 32-2 behind Kelly Olynyk, but it was in the WCC, which produced only other tourney team, Saint Mary's. While other teams battled through crazy conference schedules, the Zags didn't have many difficult games from January on. (These critics tend to ignore a non-conference schedule that featured Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Davidson, but regardless.) How could they earn a No. 1 seed? All those remarks seemed to be ringing true simultaneously as a Southern squad drilled 10 threes, blocked eight Gonzaga shots against zero by the Bulldogs, and managed to tie the game up at 56 with about four minutes left in regulation.
The Zags would survive, but it seemed like a cry for help. Meanwhile, Wichita State was busy crushing Pitt, holding senior star Tray Woodall to 1-for-12 shooting and forcing him into five turnovers, giving him a rough ending to his career as the Shockers won, 73-55. Malcolm Armstead led the way with 22, while Cleanthony Early added 21 despite missing all six threes he took.
The question for Wichita State is how they plan on stopping Olynyk. Although they beat Pitt comfortably, freshman center Steven Adams managed 13 points and 11 boards for the Panthers, and Olynyk is a much better player than the quite talented Adams. Carl Hall and Early are the two primary interior defenders for the Shockers, but they're both 6'8, while Olynyk is 7'0, agile, and strong. They could turn to their bench, where they have 7-footer Ehimen Orukpe, by far the team's best shotblocker, but Orukpe has a tendency to foul a bunch and is a real negative offensively. And with Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell behind the arc, doubling is a risky notion.
On offense, they'll need Armstead to step up again. Olynyk is also a pretty strong defender, and he and Elias Harris keep teams from getting a lot of second chance efforts, something Wichita State survives on. That could spell trouble for the Shockers, who aren't a particularly good shooting team.
Here's the info on Saturday's game.
No. 1 Gonzaga (32-2, 16-0 WCC, Kenpom ranking 4) vs. No. 9 Wichita State (27-8, 12-6 MVC, Kenpom ranking 26)
Location: EnergySolutions Arena, Salt Lake City, Utah
Time: 8:40 p.m.