As the premier team in college basketball for the last half-decade or so, the Gonzaga Bulldogs (8-3; Kenpom: 12; T-Rank: 13; NET: 18) are certainly used to being the hunted. But, come Saturday afternoon in Birmingham, AL, the Zags will take on a role that the program thought it had shed a long time back - the hunter. That’s because they will be in the rare spot of being the underdog in a game on the hardwood, as they look to avenge their loss from last season when they take on the 4th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (9-1; Kenpom: 10; T-Rank: 12; NET: 5).
Wow, that is a pleasant opening paragraph to type out as a Tide Hoops fan. It’s well-earned too - Alabama is every bit the SEC and Final Four contender that it appears to be at this juncture. The loss of Nimari Burnett is significant - he has been the Tide’s best perimeter defender by a lot, and his 34.5% 3P% gave the Tide a trio of high-volume, high efficiency long-range snipers (Brandon Miller and Mark Sears are at 43.7% and 43.9%, respectively). Jaden Bradley, Rylan Griffen, and Darius Miles will all be counted on to step-up in Burnett’s absence, which could end up being two full months.
But our focus today is on the C.M. Newton Classic, and the high-octane show-down that will be taking place in Birmingham tomorrow. The Tide doesn’t have a great recent history in the Magic City, having most recently lost this game a year ago to the Davidson Wildcats - who weren’t even supposed to play in the game originally. However, things certainly feel different this year, and the newly renovated Legacy Arena has already sold-out for this prime match-up on CBS.
Whether Alabama wins or loses probably won’t have a major impact on the Tide’s season as a whole, really. The work Nate Oats’ guys have put in for the nonconference slate is already one of the best in basketball. Still, this game feels huge. The best of the best in college hoops is coming to the heart of the south looking to avenge a loss - not to Kentucky - but to the Alabama Crimson Tide.
POINT 6’2 Nolan Hickman (8.2 PPG, 4.0 APG, 2.8 RPG, 105.2 DRtg)
GUARD 6’3 Rasir Bolton (10.7 PPG, 2.9 APG, 1.5 RPG, 106.7 DRtg)
WING 6’7 Julian Strawther (13.2 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 1.0 APG, 98.4 DRtg)
POST 6’8 Anton Watson (8.5 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, 98.0 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Drew Timme (20.5 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 3.1 APG, 99.8 DRtg)
The Zags have a trio of returning starters from last year’s team that went 28-4 overall and got upset in the Sweet Sixteen by Arkansas. The sharpshooting Rasir Bolton (41.3%/41.9%/82.8%) is one of them. He’s joined in the backcourt by last year’s sixth man, Nolan Hickman - a former five-star who leads the team with a 21.2% AST% and boasts a solid scoring line of his own (38.6%/34.8%/100%). Julian Strawther has been the go-to scorer and creator for Mark Few’s squad on the perimeter this year though, shooting 42.5%/40.0%/81.8% on about ten shots per game. Combine that with a 6’7 frame, and you’ve got yourself a future NBA starter.
In the frontcourt, Anton Watson plays his role as a physical presence in the post who can play out on the wing if necessary. Arguably the best defender on the team, he’ll likely be asked to guard Miller all day. Then there’s 4-year starter and face of the Zags, Drew Timme - who people forget chose Gonzaga over Alabama, as well as Illinois and Texas A&M. Timme’s stats are ridiculous, really - 62.1% FG%, 18.9% AST%, 13.5% REB%. An old-school post, Timme beats opposing defenders with a bevy of post-moves and gets to the line at an extremely high rate - he averages 6.7 free throw attempts per game.
Off the Bench
GUARD 6’4 Malachi Smith (8.0 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.2 APG, 102.0 DRtg)
GUARD 6’5 Hunter Sallis (5.3 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.4 APG, 103.0 DRtg)
POST 6’10 Ben Gregg (4.1 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 91.1 DRtg)
POST 6’11 Efton Reid (2.0 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 94.7 DRtg)
Gonzaga’s bench isn’t super deep in number, but it’s pretty stout in ability. You may remember Malachi Smith as the guy for the Chattanooga Mocs last season. He averaged 20 PPG for the 26-win SOCON champs. Now he’s playing the role of scoring sixth man at an elite rate (46.5%/46.4%/81.8%). Hunter Sallis was a five-star coming out of high school, and though he’s not made the impact many in Spokane had hoped, it’s not like his numbers are bad (48.9%/33.3%/76.9%; 13.0% AST%). Efton Reid is another former five-star who played for Will Wade and LSU last season. He’s a massive individual with a ton of upside, but he’s only getting a few minutes a game for the Zags right now. Ben Gregg has been the preferred back-up big, likely because he is the best rim protector on the team (6.0% BLK%).
Three Keys to Victory
- Guards Gotta Go. This game has all the makings of a track meet, in large part because both teams play at a high tempo and Gonzaga is not very good defensively right now. The Zags rank just 40th in Defensive Efficiency. Scroll back up really quick and glance through those individual defensive ratings again. See a theme? Their guards are all turnstiles on the defensive end of the court. There is a reason Jahvon Quinerly and Jaden Shackelford cooked these guys in Seattle last year. This could be a huge game for Sears, Bradley, JQ, and Griffen.
- Angry Chuck. Aside from Shack and Quinerly going nuclear on the Zags perimeter defense, Charles Bediako more than standing his ground against Drew Timme is why Gonzaga comes into this game looking to avenge a loss. He and Noah Clowney are going to be counted on to stay in front of - while not fouling - Timme and keep him and Gregg off of the boards. The Zags rebounding comes almost exclusively from the frontcourt, so an Angry Chuck appearance would go a long way towards securing a victory for Alabama.
- Take Care of the Basketball. The beatings will continue until turnovers improve. In all seriousness, the Tide had another 19 turnovers against Memphis on Tuesday night, which allowed the Tigers to hang around all game. Gonzaga doesn’t force many turnovers themselves, but most of Alabama’s are of the unforced variety anyway. This game has all the makings of a close one. Not valuing possessions and bailing the Zags out on defense while letting them get out and running with their elite offense (5th in Offensive Efficiency) could make the difference in this game.
This is another big-time Saturday showcase for the Crimson Tide. The C.M. Newton Classic couldn’t have asked for more. If Alabama wants to do the namesake proud and get another massive win, it will take the best of everyone on the roster. Because the Gonzaga Bulldogs - the elite of the elite in modern college hoops - have had this game circled since the schedule dropped. This year’s Zags squad doesn’t seem as dominant as some of the more recent teams - losing a guy like Chet Holmgren will do that - but they are very much still Final Four contenders.
The game will tip-off at noon CST live from Birmingham and will be televised on CBS.