By David Mackey III | @davidmackey_iii
Sports Capital Journalism Program
CHICAGO — The 11th-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs square off against the 10th-seeded Syracuse Orange Friday night at the United Center in Chicago in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In order for Gonzaga to make its third Elite Eight, the Bulldogs must continue their success in the paint against Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3-zone defense.
Few teams are playing with more confidence than Gonzaga at this point in the tournament. Coming off a second-round 82-59 domination of third-seeded Utah, the Bulldogs have shown they can beat anyone. Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis have dominated in the low post and given teams headaches all season. Coming into this game the Bulldogs (28-7) have a scored a total of 2,780 points, with 892, or 32 percent, coming within the paint.
Wiltjer, a 6-foot-10 senior, and Sabonis, a 6-foot-11 sophomore, have led the Bulldogs in scoring throughout most of the season. Wiltjer is a prototypical stretch four, a more versatile power forward that can score inside and out. Wiltjer also looks to pass the ball and set his teammates up for shots.
Wiltjer comes into this game averaging 18.7 points per game and making 43.2 percent of his 3-point shots. Sabonis has averaged 21.6 points per game this season, and all but five of his 231 field goals have come inside the 3-point line.
What do these numbers in the paint mean against Syracuse?
Syracuse has been the model of inconsistency in a 21-13 season, but the Orange have turned things around in the first two rounds and cruised past Dayton, 70-51, and Middle Tennessee, 75-60. The Orange have used their length to attack teams defensively with their 2-3-zone. Syracuse has averaged 72.5 points as a team in its two tournament games, and has given up an average of 50.5 points.
But Syracuse has struggled through much of the season against opponents’ scoring in the paint. In its 13 losses, Syracuse has given up a total of 438 points down low. This means the Orange have given up an average of 33.7 points a game inside. If the Bulldogs can continue their dominance in the low post it could be a long evening for Syracuse. In Gonzaga’s two NCAA victories, the Bulldogs have scored 70 points in the paint.
The easiest way to break down an effective zone is to get inside it and force players to collapse. While Gonzaga’s inside-out game provides the perfect recipe, the Bulldogs have not seen that much zone defense all season.
“We’ve probably played I bet less than 30 possessions against zone this year because teams feared Wiltjer so much,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “So it’s going to be interesting to play it for 40 minutes because you just don’t create or have that same kind of rhythm you have a lot of times with your man offense.”
The Bulldogs will have to depend on the inside-out game of Wiltjer to break down the zone. There’s no doubt Gonzaga will stick to its formula.
“Obviously we attack everything inside-out and we’ll continue to attack inside-out,” Few said. “That’s kind of who we are. It’s just going to come at different times; it’s going to come at different places and in different contexts. I think it’s a big key that we don’t just settle for tons of threes, but we must get the ball into the paint either off a pass or off the bounce.”
If Few sticks to his team’s identity of scoring down low, the Bulldogs could make their third trip to the Elite Eight and the second in as many tournaments.