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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia takes on No. 1 Gonzaga in key non-conference matchup

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Can the Hoos pull off the upset?

Towson v Virginia Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The strength of schedule for the No. 16 Virginia men’s basketball team took a hit after the Hoos lost out on both the Michigan State and Villanova games as a result of the team’s COVID-19 issues. Getting Gonzaga, the number one team in the nation, on the schedule helps as Virginia prepares for ACC play, and of course winning the game would be nice.

The Zags are No. 1 for a reason. They have played three teams ranked in the KenPom top 10 and they’re 3-0 against those teams with an average margin of victory of 9+ points per game. Their three other games — Auburn and Northwestern State twice — have an average margin of victory of over 25 points per game. Those two Northwestern State games were back-to-back on Monday and Tuesday, and the Bulldogs haven’t played since.

Gonzaga is third in points per game nationally, averaging almost 95 points per game. They are also sixth nationally in tempo and second in offensive efficiency. Virginia is, once again, the slowest team in America. They’re also 53rd in offensive efficiency, quite an improvement over last year’s 234th ranking.

The Zags have more top talent than the Hoos, but Virginia appears deeper. One of the reason’s we’ve seen some struggles early this season is uncertain rotations as Tony Bennett is still settling in on his best lineups. Only Jay Huff and Sam Hauser have started every game, and 10 guys average 10 minutes per game. Of the 10 regulars this season, just five saw real minutes last year. Bennett has said that there is parity on the roster, so he has to find the right combinations and matchups.

Conversely, Gonzaga has used the same starting lineup for their first five games and only changed one spot on the second day of the back-to-back. Of their seven rotation guys, four were regulars on last year’s team. One of the newcomers is freshman Jalen Suggs, who has simply been one of the best players in the country thus far. He’s averaging 16 points and seven assists per game while providing elite perimeter defense. He’s also shooting 50% from three, which was supposed to be his weakness..

Obviously, he’s also incredibly athletic. There’s a reason he’s a projected top-5 pick in the NBA draft.

As you can see from the clip above, Gonzaga is going to run some press. That’s how they speed you up. We know it’s tough to speed up Tony Bennett’s teams, but we also know that when it does happen, it’s not good. Figure on seeing a lot of both Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman, because having two strong ball-handlers on the floor makes the press less effective.

One ancillary benefit of the press is that Mark Few can send several players to the offensive glass, knowing they can remain in the front court for the press. In other words, not having a set defense is by design.

The Zags have three players among the top 500 nationally in offensive rebounding rate in Drew Timme, Anton Watson, and Joel Ayayi. That is three of their starters (though Watson did not start their last game). Timme is the biggest and best of that group. He’s a beast inside and on the glass and draws a ton of fouls.

This might be a game where we see more of Francisco Caffaro, because he has the size to keep Timme and company off the glass and help keep Jay Huff out of foul trouble. Huff’s inside-outside game is something Gonzaga is going to struggle to defend so Virginia can’t afford to have him sitting on the bench much.

On the wings with Watson and Ayayi is Corey Krspert. Kispert was first team All-WCC last season and was on a number of preseason All-America lists. He is 6’7 and has one of the sweetest jump shots in the country. That is exactly the type of player that has hurt the pack line defense in the past. He’s made 46% of his threes this year, and he’s 40% for his career on nearly 500 attempts. He leads the Zags in scoring at just under 21 points per game. Bennett has a few options — namely Sam Hauser, Trey Murphy, and Justin McKoy — to guard Kispert because of Virginia’s length on the perimeter.

When they aren’t pressing, the Zags are a fairly standard man-to-man defense. They will switch on some screen action, but they also hedge with their big men. If you can turn the corner on them, there’s really no intimidating shot blocker.

And here’s an example of the switching. The weak-side defenders get caught ball watching and it’s an open jumper for Iowa. We haven’t really seen a ton of pick n roll from the Wahoos this year, but that may be in part due to the level of competition. When we have seen it, it’s been Kihei Clark and Jay Huff and it’s been successful.

This isn’t even a good screen, but Clark’s quickness gets him past his man and Huff’s defender can’t guard both the shot and the pass. Gonzaga is going to score — they’re too talented and too well-coached not to — so the Hoos will have to score to keep up. Getting looks like this one for Huff will certainly help.

This is probably the toughest game of the season for Virginia. They looked very good last time against William and Mary, but overall this season they’ve been inconsistent. If this team plays the way we know they can play, and does it for 40 minutes, they can win. If we see the inconsistent effort that we’ve seen too often this season, Gonzaga might run away with this game.

You can catch the game at 4pm on CBS.