(1) Gonzaga vs. (3) Texas Tech
- Ky McKeon
Initial Thoughts: Gonzaga enters the Elite Eight for the third time in five years, looking for its second Final Four appearance under the tutelage of the great Mark Few. Texas Tech breezed past a talented Michigan squad and now finds itself in its second straight Elite Eight. The Raiders have never been to a Final Four, but Chris Beard has his team firing on all cylinders right now.
This game is the classic “unstoppable force meets an immovable object”. Gonzaga is the best offensive team in the country, per KenPom, Texas Tech boasts the nation’s best defense (and 2nd best EVER in the KenPom era), and neither squad has won by less than double digits in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
Perhaps we will finally know the answer to the question, “Does offense or defense win championships?”
Gonzaga on Offense: Gonzaga’s efficiency on the offensive end stems from its ability to beat a defense in every way imaginable. The Zags’ preferred method of scoring is via transition opportunities, particularly by pushing off the defensive glass, but they’re also one of the best shooting, post-up, and pick-n-roll teams in the country. Brandon Clarke has made a world of difference since transferring from San Jose State, and he’ll be the key matchup focus here for Texas Tech. Clarke technically plays the 5, but he plays from pretty much wherever he wants on the offensive end. The Raiders start two rim-protecting bigs in Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase. Clarke may not find much success on the block or via cuts across the belly of the D, but his ball handling and passing ability should be able to draw his defender into guarding him in space. As Mfiondu Kabengele, a terrific defender, found out last game, guarding Clarke in space is no easy task:
Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie should be able to find success in similar ways as Clarke, especially given these two Bulldog Bigs can consistently knockdown the three-ball. Both Clarke and Hachimura were able to use their versatility to beat the bigger FSU forwards, combining for 34 points on 12/28 shooting, and Gonzaga’s ability to invert their offense is one of the main reasons opposing teams have struggled to stop them all year. Tillie may not have scored many points against the Noles on Thursday, but his knack for spacing the floor opens up everything for the Zags’ offense. Here’s Tillie’s On/Off impact against Balyor and Florida State:
Tech’s packed in style of defense makes it nearly impossible for anyone to score inside, but if the Zags can stretch the floor, driving lanes and open looks will come available. Against the Noles, most of Few’s half-court offensive sets involved all five players dotting the arc.
Texas Tech is so good defensively in the half-court because of their superior switchability and versatility across all five positions. While they do start two giant guys at the 4 and 5, Owens and Odiase are pretty mobile and Jarrett Culver’s ability to guard any position on the floor helps make up for any would-be advantage off ball screens or off the bounce. Just take a look at this Texas Tech defensive possession against Michigan. The Raiders switch everything and absolutely smother the Wolverines, ultimately forcing them into a tough shot:
Gonzaga will need to push the tempo to score consistently against the Raiders. Teams like Duke, Iowa State, and West Virginia were able to do this and found success on the run. While the Zags are excellent in the half-court, Tech’s defense is lockdown – points will be hard to come by in half-court situations for a Zags squad that prefers to play inside the arc.
Texas Tech on Offense: The Raiders’ defense garners all of the media attention, but their offense is actually quite potent as well. Beard uses constant off-ball movement to keep opposing defensive units on their toes and allows his super-stud sophomore, Culver, to do most of the heavy lifting. Owens and Odiase hunt for screens on their guards’ defenders, ala a mover-blocker system, and the principal of “pass and screen away” is heavily featured. Tech’s 1.02 PPP against Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen was just the 9th time all season the Wolverines allowed more than 1.00 PPP (Michigan State did it three times).
Culver is currently the KenPom National Player of the Year, a well-deserved title for a player that literally does everything on both ends of the floor. He’s obviously a great slasher and one-on-one player, but Culver is also an excellent passer. Too much help by Gonzaga defenders on the stud wing, and he’ll find sharpshooters Matt Mooney and Davide Morretti ready to bomb away from deep.
One caveat to Tech’s normally fluid offensive sets – the Raiders do tend to go into “watch Culver” mode when things get dicey. This can lead to stagnation in the offense and to Culver forcing tough mid-range jumpers off the bounce in traffic, a heavy driver of Tech’s high tendency to shoot shots in this area of the floor. The Zags are nearly as switchable as the Raiders on defense, with Clarke able to guard anyone from the 5-spot, and every other position featuring somebody with plus-length. The Raiders will find more success getting into the teeth of the defense than Gonzaga will, but they’ll still find themselves forcing tough shots over the outstretched arms of Tillie/Clarke/Hachimura.
The biggest question for Gonzaga on this end is who they will put on Culver. Zach Norvell is probably the most likely candidate with his size and length, but Cory Kispert has done a sneaky excellent job this year as well. Josh Perkins will draw one of Mooney or Moretti, two guys of which he should be able to stay in front. Gonzaga did an excellent job of keeping the giant FSU forwards off the glass on Thursday and should be able to do the same against Tech today.
Key Factor(s): The tempo battle will be a key factor in today’s game. The Zags want to push the rock on offense (7th fastest offense in the country), while the Raiders take a more methodical approach to offense and play in the half-court. If the Zags can find consistent scoring chances on the run, there isn’t much Tech is going to be able to on the other end to overcome it.
Another key factor is Gonzaga’s ball handling. The Zags are the 11th best team in the country from a turnover perspective, but we just saw Perkins struggle with FSU pressure on Thursday, and he’s faced similar trouble in the past. Tech doesn’t run a ton, but they will get out in the open floor off steals where Culver is an absolutely electric finisher.
Final Predictions: This should be a great game and close for the full forty minutes. Ultimately, I think Gonzaga’s offensive versatility and switchability on defense will be enough to overcome the Tech defensive juggernauts. Zags in a fun, tight contest.