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Northwestern vs. Gonzaga preview: analysis, players to watch, prediction

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Gonzaga is rated the No. 1 team in the country by Ken Pomeroy.

Northwestern v Vanderbilt Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

After narrowly escaping in a 68-66 win over Vanderbilt, it certainly doesn’t get any easier for Northwestern. The Wildcats are dancing their way into a Round of 32 matchup against the No. 1 seed in the west, the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Northwestern’s win wasn’t necessarily pretty, but they gutted out a win. Gonzaga had a similar Round of 64 experience against the Summit League Champion South Dakota State Jackrabbits. Although Gonzaga would close out a 66-46 win, the Jackrabbits hung around far too long for comfort. Gonzaga saw itself trailing for much of the first half, and carried only a 26-22 lead at the interval.

The game will tip-off at 4:15 p.m. CST. Northwestern opened as 10.5 point underdogs, and nothing will come easy against the battle-tested Bulldogs. This will be the toughest test for Chris Collins’ team this season. Here’s everything you need to know about the Gonzaga Bulldogs:

Gonzaga at a glance

  • Record: 33-1 (17-1 WCC)
  • RPI: 8 (NU is 51)
  • KenPom: 1 (NU is 38)
  • Good wins (ranks from KenPom): vs. No. 9 Florida (neutral), vs. No. 17 Iowa State (neutral), vs. No. 19 Arizona (neutral), vs. No. 14 St Mary’s (three times),
  • Only loss: vs. No. 81 BYU
  • Head coach: Mark Few, 18th season. 499-112 with Gonzaga, 243-29 in conference. Previous coaching position(s): Gonzaga (asst.)

Players to Watch

  • Nigel Williams-Goss, junior guard (16.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.8 apg)

In his first season for Gonzaga since transferring from Washington after the 2014-2015 season, Williams-Goss has emerged as the Bulldogs’ leading scorer by over four points. He’s an incredibly efficient player, shooting 52.1 percent from the field. The junior point guard has scored at least ten points in all but four games this season, and up until Gonzaga’s first round win over South Dakota State, Williams-Goss had scored double digits in 12 consecutive games (he scored 9 in Thursday’s win).

Williams-Goss is deadly from mid-range and excels at getting to the rim. He’s perfected Gonzaga’s ball screen heavy offense, which lets him turn the corner and take it himself or kick it to an open shooter. That’s helped him accumulate 157 assists to just 69 turnovers. Williams-Goss is also capable of scoring from beyond the arc. He takes nearly three triples a game, shooting them at a 36.1 percent clip. Don’t let the savvy guard get the line, however. He shoots free throws at 90.4 percent, good for 15th in the nation. Couple his offensive prowess with sound defense and 5.7 rebounds per game, and you have one of the best point guards in the country. In fact, Williams-Goss is a Bob Cousy Award Finalist.

  • Przemek Karnowski, senior center (12.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.0 apg)

Northwestern’s seen some big centers this season (Purdue’s Isaac Haas comes to mind), but none compare to Przemek Karnowski. The big man is listed at 7-foot-1 and 300 pounds, but he’s incredibly talented. Karnowski’s senior season was cut short last year due to back surgery, but his redshirt senior has been his best. His scoring is at a career high, and his field goal percentage sits at an impressive 60.2%. Karnowski is a weapon offensively and a presence on the defense end, and that’s helped him become a semifinalist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award.

Against South Dakota State, Karnowski was limited in the first half, but finished the game 5-for-9. The Jackrabbits did a good job of doubling Karnowski, something Northwestern will absolutely have to do. He’s a lefty much more comfortable using his left hand, and in the first half SDSU took away his right shoulder and forced him to fade to his left. Gonzaga still got the win, a routine occurrence for the NCAA all-time wins leader. Karnowski’s most underrated talent is his passing. The 7-footer is terrific at passing out of double teams and finding shooters on the perimeter. He’s a tough matchup for anyone, and Northwestern will have its hands full. Perhaps Karnowski’s one weakness is he’s only a 58.4 percent free throw shooter.

  • Zach Collins, freshman forward/center (10.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.5 bpg)

Out of this entire Gonzaga team, its best NBA prospect is undeniably Zach Collins. The highly touted freshman hasn’t played a whole lot this season, and that’s because he hasn’t had to. He averages only 17.1 minutes per game and spends most of his time backing up Karnowski, although he is capable of playing the four. Leave Collins open and he can hit the three (9-for-20 on the season), but he does his damage within the three-point arc, shooting 67.7 percent on two-point attempts.

Collins is a force on the glass on both ends, boasting an excellent 12.3 offensive rebounding percentage and a 22.7 defensive rebounding percentage. Perhaps more impressive is his 8.9 block percentage. Either way, Collins is an incredibly athletic player that will have a big impact on this game off the bench.

  • Jordan Mathews, senior forward (10.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 39.5% from three)

After playing his first three years at Cal, Mathews has had an immediate impact for Gonzaga. He’s an volatile scorer, capable of pouring in 16 points like he did on Thursday, or notching only 3 points in 27 minutes as he did in the WCC Championship against St. Mary’s. As is the Gonzaga offense, with five players averaging in double digits, Mathews does not need to put up big numbers every game. The senior does shoot eight times per game, and five of which are usually threes. He’s a balanced forward who takes care of the ball very well. However, he may be a bit undersized at 6-foot-4 for the three, and this could be a matchup to emphasize on the offensive end for Northwestern.

  • Josh Perkins, junior guard (8.4 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.4 apg)

Perkins is Gonzaga’s starting two-guard, but he also serves as the backup to Williams-Goss when the star point guard takes a rare breather. The addition of Williams-Goss has affected Perkins’ minutes and production just a tick, but the junior guard has still put up solid numbers. He’s an excellent shooter, 40.1% from three, and is more than capable of distributing the basketball. His Achilles’ heel might be his tendency to press; Perkins averages two turnovers per game.

  • Johnathan Williams, junior forward (10.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 59.9 fg %)

The junior transfer from Missouri sat out last season, but he has made the wait worth it for Mark Few and his coaching staff. Williams has emerged as Gonzaga’s leading rebounder and its starting power forward. Much like Collins, Williams takes high percentage shots and his two-point field goal percentage of 62.8 supports that fact. Williams is very strong on the defensive end, which he demonstrated on Thursday by locking up South Dakota State’s Mike Daum. Daum came into the game averaging 25.3 points per game, but Williams held him to 17, his lowest scoring game in over a month. Williams is incredibly athletic and has shown his capability of defending the perimeter. I could see him on Sanjay Lumpkin or even Vic Law.

  • Silas Melson, junior guard (7.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 1.5 apg)

It’s not often a preview goes seven players deep, but Melson is worth watching. He averages nearly 25 minute per game off the bench, primarily backing up Perkins but also spelling Mathews at times. The former Jefferson High School standout plays somewhat of a limited role on offense, he doesn’t get many touches, but he’s one of the leaders of the Gonzaga team. He’ll play down the stretch in big moments, and when Mark Few is in need of a big shot, Melson shoots at 53.8 percent from two and 38.2 percent from three. He’s a savvy player.

Game Analysis

On the bright side, if there was any one seed Northwestern had to play, Gonzaga is probably the one you pick. The recipe for beating the Bulldogs is nearly a secret; they have only lost once this season and that was to an inspired BYU team who pulled off the upset on Senior Night in Spokane. They caught Gonzaga on an extremely cold shooting night (3-for-16 from three) and were able to rebound with the Bulldogs (both teams had 38 boards). BYU’s star center Eric Mika scored 29 points while holding Karnowski to 10 and Collins to 6, and its shooters hit nine threes which helped carry the Cougars to a 79-71 win.

During his 18 years at Gonzaga, Mark Few has made 18 NCAA Tournament appearances. The only other time Gonzaga was a 1-seed was in 2013 when they finished the regular season 31-2 and then proceeded to fall to No. 9 seed Wichita State in the Round of 32. Few has also lost in the Round of 32 eight different times.

Realistically, this might be the best Gonzaga team ever. KenPom loves Gonzaga’s efficiency ratings; they are 12th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 1st in adjusted defense efficiency. Williams-Goss is an elite point guard, Karnowski is unlike any other player at his position, Collins is a legit NBA prospect, and the supporting cast is deep. This is a Gonzaga team that had a few tests in non-conference play, but it’s been a long time since they’ve played a Top 50 team not named St. Mary’s.

So how does Northwestern match up with the West Coast powerhouse? Can Dererk Pardon and the rest of the frontcourt battle with Karnowski and Collins? Can Vic Law shut down Williams-Goss? Does Northwestern have the depth to play 40 minutes with a team that boasts five players in double digits and has two seven footers? Well, as they say, this is March. Northwestern’s young and naïve, and they won’t be intimidated on Saturday.

Prediction

  • KenPom prediction: Gonzaga 74, Northwestern 63 (NU 15% chance of victory)
  • My prediction: Northwestern 70, Gonzaga 69