TUCSON, Ariz. — Gonzaga is coming off a big road win over rival Washington. The Bulldogs – and certainly their fan base – are eagerly awaiting Wednesday’s visit from North Carolina.
With full respect to the Huskies and Tar Heels, No. 6 Gonzaga’s assignment Saturday night in the desert is probably the toughest matchup, on paper and in reality, on its schedule.
The 15th-ranked Arizona Wildcats (10-1) are stocked with freshmen Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji among the top 14 pro prospects, according to 247sports. Washington and North Carolina each have two highly rated freshmen on several NBA draft boards. No Zags made 247sports’ top 20.
The Zags recruited at least three Wildcats: Duke transfer forward Chase Jeter, UC Irvine grad transfer Max Hazzard and sophomore guard Brandon Williams, who is out for the season with a knee injury.
Arizona is 101-8 in its last 109 games at McKale Center, including 61-1 in its last 62 nonconference home contests. The Wildcats are searching for a resume-defining win after falling at then No. 18 Baylor on the road in their only other contest versus a ranked opponent.
The Zags (10-1) bring the nation’s longest active road winning streak (10) into one of the loudest arenas in college basketball. Gonzaga lost at McKale Center in 2000 (101-87) and in 2014 (66-63 in overtime), the latter when the Zags were ranked ninth and the Wildcats third.
Gonzaga will try to extend another less publicized streak — eight consecutive wins against Pac-12 teams — after knocking off then No. 11 Oregon and then No. 22 Washington earlier this season. The Pac-12 preseason poll was tight at the top with Oregon getting the nod over Colorado, Washington and Arizona.
The Zags have won the last two against Arizona in the nine-game series, 91-74 in the Maui Invitational last year and 69-62 in Los Angeles in 2016. The formula in those victories is similar to Gonzaga’s current inside-outside structure: strong frontcourt play.
Gonzaga boasts forwards Filip Petrusev and Killian Tillie, the team’s top two scorers that produce nearly 30 points per game, and freshmen Drew Timme and Anton Watson, who combine for another 17 points.
The Wildcats counter with Jeter and Nnaji, a 6-foot-11 freshman who had a streak of 17 consecutive made field goals earlier this season. Nnaji averages a team-high 15.9 points and shoots nearly 71 percent from the field (fourth nationally), but he’s only hit one 3-pointer compared to Tillie’s 11 in six games.
Team stats and KenPom rankings for the two Western powers are similar, but Gonzaga holds a rebounding edge while Arizona has been stronger with field-goal percentage defense. The Wildcats limit opponents to 36.7 percent shooting (17th nationally), including 32.2 percent beyond the arc.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few was concerned about the boards early on, but the Zags are plus-10.4 per game. Arizona counterpart Sean Miller calls rebounding his team’s Achilles’ heel.
“We’re not good enough at defensive rebounding,” Miller told the media after a 99-49 rout over Omaha on Wednesday. “We’re not a team that gets a lot of second shots. We’ve been at this for a while, but we have to block out. Our guards have to rebound better, but so do our bigs. Our starters as a group have to do a better job. So does our bench.
“It’s the weakness of our team. And when you play a team like Gonzaga, who is very good at getting second shots, they can really win the game and break your back when they can get those big second shots.”
Miller also expressed concern about Gonzaga’s team balance.
“For them it’s never one player, it’s always a team,” Miller said. “The best team is going to win, and what I mean by that is it’s not superlatives of who played well individually. Gonzaga does not beat themselves. We’ve played them six times since I’ve been here. Every game, their style is virtually the same.”