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Virginia vs. Gonzaga: Three storylines to watch

Hoos take on No. 1 at 4pm on CBS.

Northwestern State v Gonzaga Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

No. 16 Virginia faces its toughest test of the season as the Cavaliers head to Fort Worth on Boxing Day to take on the No. 1-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs. This is a game that was added to the schedule after Virginia had high profile games against Michigan State and Villanova canceled as a result of a program pause for COVID-19 issues.

Gonzaga is 6-0 on the season, and already has emphatic wins over No. 3 Kansas, No. 4 Iowa, and No. 7 West Virginia. Virginia is 4-1 to start, with a loss to San Francisco (a conference foe of the Zags) and an overtime win over Kent State.

“They’re a very good team, a very talented team,” Tony Bennett said of the Zags. “They are deserving of that number-one ranking, and we’re excited for the challenge. They shot very [well] against Iowa, so we’re going to have to really make sure we lock in on that. Their bigs are also very good. They’re really a complete team, and it will be a good challenge for us.”

Gonzaga is favored by nine points in the game, the most an opponent has been favored against Virginia since Wisconsin in 2012 (+10).

Storylines to Watch

Gonzaga Offense vs. Virginia Defense

This is the biggest story of the game, without a doubt. According to KenPom, Gonzaga is the sixth fastest team in the nation while the Hoos come in dead last at No. 357. The Zags average 95 points per game, while Virginia is giving up 54 points per game. This game is the definition of “something’s gotta give.”

So, what gives?

Gonzaga is averaging just over 20 points per game off of turnovers, and their opponents are committing 16 giveaways a game. The Zags also like to get out and run, scoring just shy of 22 points per game in transition. This isn’t to say that 44 points per game are scored off of turnovers and fast breaks as both stats can be recorded on the same play. It does, however, illustrate that Gonzaga will disrupt play and turn long rebounds or steals in to buckets on the other end.

The Virginia defense hasn’t been as stout through five games this season as Cavalier fans have gotten accustomed to (oh my gosh, they’re all the way down at No. 3 in KenPom), but they’re still very, very good. They’re holding opponents to a paltry 39% from two, but against Gonzaga, the best defensive plan may start with success on the offensive end. If you’re scoring points, you aren’t giving up either points off of turnovers OR fast break points. Seems like a win-win to me.

Virginia vs. No. 1

The Cavaliers are 1-30 all-time in games against the top-ranked team in the nation, and Tony Bennett is 0-3 in his tenure. Virginia has come close in its last two outings against No. 1 as the Hoos fell to No. 1 Duke (72-70) in 2019 and dropped a close game to No. 1 Villanova (61-59) in 2017. Virginia’s lone No. 1 win came against North Carolina in January of 1986 in Charlottesville. At Washington State, Bennett had one regular season game against a No. 1 team when his Cougars fell by three points to UCLA in 2006.

Guarding Suggs

Gonzaga freshman Jalen Suggs has been one of the most (if not the most) impressive first year players in the country so far this season. The Zags’ front court of Corey Kispert (20.8 points per game, 46% from three) and Drew Timme (20.3 points per game, 62% from two) is a nightmare to slow down, but Suggs brings a spark to the team. He’s shooting 50% from three and 61% from two, and leads the team in both steals and assists.

At 6-4, 205, he’s a tough matchup both physically and when accounting for speed. Casey Morsell (6-3, 196) might be the best bet for the Hoos, with potential to throw Reece Beekman or Justin McKoy at him.

The game is set to tip off at 4pm on CBS.