Even though the Texas football team didn't make the Big 12 Championship this weekend that doesn't mean there aren't Longhorns to cheer on. The #25 Horns (5-1) tangle with #21 Gonzaga (7-1) at the Basketball Hall of Fame Challenge in Phoenix on Saturday afternoon at 2 PM on ESPN. Arizona and Illinois play following our game. Thankfully, this one is in Phoenix and not in Spokane. The Zags easily took care of Portland State 76-51 on Thursday night to extend their nation leading 44 game home winning streak. We can also be thankful the Arizona Wildcat fans likely won't provide an advantage for either team.
Like Texas, Gonzaga participated in an early pre-season tournament, the NIT Season Tip-Off, which landed them in NYC for two games. After easily beating Rice and Baylor at home, the Bulldogs traveled to Madison Square Garden for their first test of the year against then #2 North Carolina. Unlike the Horns, Gonzaga showed up in their first game against a real team upsetting the Tar Heels 82-74. Mark Few's team didn't play nearly as solidly in the championship losing to Butler 79-71. I saw most of both of these games and came away very impressed.
The Zags are led by returning starting point guard Derek Raivio. He looks more like a confused white rapper than a basketball player but he does have game. Raivio is quick off the dribble and can handle the ball well. He is the leading scorer for Gonzaga at over 18 ppg. He is deadly from behind the arc and from the free throw line. His outside shooting will be something to watch if the Horns play a 2-3 zone as I expect.
Why a zone? With the loss of JP Batista, the Zags were missing an inside presence. 6'11" sophomore Josh Heytvelt (17 ppg, 7 rpg) has really stepped up. He had a monster game against UNC's Tyler Hansbrough and Brandan Wright and presents an even bigger matchup problem for the Horns. Heytvelt can shoot the mid range jumper or score with his back to the basket. Texas doesn't have anyone as good on the low post as he is. Dexter Pittman has improved dramatically in the last two games but has yet to guard anyone with Heytvelt's size or ability. Keeping our post players out of foul trouble will be a big key on Saturday afternoon.
Two other guys to watch: sophomore Jeremy Pargo (6'2" 215) & freshman Matt Bouldin (6'5" 210). Pargo plays on the wing who likes to slash to the basket (ala Jay Mason). Pargo is also bigger and more athletic than AJ Abrams or DJ Augustin. Bouldin is a two time Colorado high school player of the year. He is a steady backup point guard and an excellent passer who leads the team with over four assists per game. Both guards present matchup problems with their size and ability to break down a defense with dribble penetration.
Gonzaga is a solid, well coached, and balanced basketball team capable, as we have already seen, of beating anyone in the country. Beating the Zags on a neutral court is certainly possible but won't be easy. As I stated in my review of the Texas Southern game, we really don't know where the Horns are right now. A solid performance and a win on Saturday will show the nation just how far are freshman have come already this season. This game and the next one will be the differences between a six to eight loss year and a ten to twelve loss season.
Points to Watch
- Pace: Both teams like to play fast and get easy baskets in transition. While both teams are comfortable in the half court, whoever is better at converting turnovers into fast break points will have a distinct advantage.
- Foul Trouble: Neither team is particularly deep in their frontcourts. Getting Heytvelt into early foul trouble could prove to be the difference. Likewise if Kevin Durant or Damion James is forced to sit, defending the post will be difficult.
- Rebounding: Texas has struggled controlling the defensive glass against good teams. The Horns start and play lots of minutes with small lineups. Durant and Mason must help rebound, not just this game but all season, for the Horns to be able to win. Both teams are outrebounding their opponents by nearly ten per game. Keep an eye on total rebounds second chance points.
- Bench Play: The Horns' starting five are solid but in a quick game bench production could prove crucial. Will Dexter Pittman contribute like he has the last two games or will the flow of the game pass him by? Will Matt Hill or Connor Atchley be able to defend Heytvelt and keep him off the glass? How much will Coach Barnes experiment with the always disappointing play of JD Lewis and Craig Winder?