The Virginia Cavaliers are squaring off against the No. 1 team in the nation on Saturday afternoon. It’s the first game against Gonzaga since Sean Singletary roamed the halls of John Paul Jones Arena, and it’s already being billed as the season’s best clash of styles. Gonzaga likes to run, and we’re all very familiar with Virginia’s slowed down pace of play.
In order to get the inside info on the Zags, we chatted with Peter Woodburn of The Slipper Still Fits.
Let’s get to it!
Streaking the Lawn: Obviously a great start for Gonzaga this season and against great competition. Where has this team exceeded expectations for you?
The Slipper Still Fits: It is hard for the preseason No. 1 team to exceed expectations because they are obviously so high to begin with. Personally, I am pleasantly surprised with how good Gonzaga has played to open the season. There have definitely been some rough patches, as expected for a squad that has so many new faces on it, but Gonzaga has pretty much looked the part of the top team in college from the get-go. Kansas, West Virginia, and Iowa all played the Zags close at times, but never looked like they would take control of those games at any point.
On a player level, I would imagine that Jalen Suggs has exceeded most everyone’s expectations. He is the highest-ranked recruit to ever roll through Gonzaga and he has looked more than ready to be one of the best players on one of the best teams in the nation. Seeing him play like that against the likes of Kansas and Iowa, instead of Northwestern State (x2), is so much fun.
STL: If there’s a weakness for this team, it seems to be defense. How can Virginia exploit that?
TSSF: Because there are a lot of new faces on the team, the Zags communication on defense has left a little to be desired at times. Kansas was able to stay in the game because Gonzaga struggled on communicating through the ball screens, leaving guys wide open for three-point shots. The Zags are athletic and their guards are long. Jalen Suggs has demonstrated fantastic vision on the defensive end. If Virginia is trying to go one-on-one it isn’t going to work. But if they can run some solid ball screens and get a nice offensive flow going, Gonzaga might struggle a little.
The other weakness is front court depth. Oumar “Baby Shaq” Ballo is still very much a developmental work in progress. He will get some minutes, but outside of Drew Timme, he is the only true big. Luke Garza basically fouled out the entire front court on his own, and Gonzaga had to get creative with the lineups.
STL: Is the three-point shooting what we saw over the first three games, what we saw against Iowa, or somewhere in-between?
TSSF: Somewhere in-between for sure. Corey Kispert is established, you don’t have to worry about him draining shots from long range. Jalen Suggs probably isn’t going to shoot 7-of-10 every night. Even if he comes a bit back down to Earth, realistically, those are your two biggest three-point threats. Andrew Nembhard, Joel Ayayi, and Aaron Cook have never been elite three-point shooters. The Zags are definitely going to hit more than five three pointers per game, however. If Cook, Ayayi, or Nembhard hit two or three three-pointers, it’ll be a problem for Virginia, because those are basically free points for the Zags.
STL: When you look at the pack line vs. Gonzaga’s potent offense, how do you see that matching up? Who will be the biggest key to the Zags’ offensive success?
TSSF: The easiest way to beat the pack line defense is to put your foot on the gas and never let it up. Gonzaga thrives in playing a fast-paced game. Specifically, this will be an interesting game to watch for Jalen Suggs. He is tough as nails, and his high school football pedigree pretty much means he has never seen a fast break he didn’t like. He draws contact, sometimes offensive fouls, pretty often. I’d expect to see all five members of the Zags breaking down court for every position. If Virginia can’t set up its defense in the first place, it will give the Zags less to deal with.
STL: Gonzaga has history with both Virginia as a program and Tony Bennett as a coach. What is your least favorite memory of playing either UVA or Bennett?
TSSF: Dec. 5, 2007, in Spokane. Washington State was ranked No. 8, Gonzaga No. 17. The final score was 51-47. Gonzaga shot 25.9 percent from the floor. Only three of their starters scored points. They had 12 free throws and 15 total field goals. As a Gonzaga fan, it was one of the worst offensive displays in my memory. I tried to drink that game away and to this day it lingers like a traumatic experience that refuses to diminish with time.
STL: Ok, prediction time!
TSSF: Gonzaga 100, Virginia 60. Just kidding. Virginia obviously will do what they can to slow down the tempo, so I’ll put this at Gonzaga 75, Virginia 60. The pack line defense is stout, but I just don’t see how Virginia is going to be able to stop all of the weapons Gonzaga employs. This will be the third top-10 ranked defense the Zags have faced this season, and no team has figured out how to slow down Timme, Kispert, AND Suggs at the same time. If one of those players sags for a game, the others have shown they are capable of scoring 25+ a game.
I do think that, despite the final score, this game has a chance of being a bit closer. Virginia’s experience is going to go a long way in this game. Ultimately, I think Gonzaga’s talent wins out.
Huge thanks to Peter and The Slipper Still Fits for chatting. The game is scheduled for 4pm on Saturday on CBS. Stay tuned to Streaking the Lawn for more updates!