Game of the Week: No. 11 Tennessee at Gonzaga (Saturday, December 29, 4:00 PM, ESPN2)
With the calendar turning towards 2008 in just a few days, conference play is set to begin across the country in many of the major conference – if it hasn’t already. However, there are still several high-quality non-conference games still left to be played, games that will have a major effect on seedings and position in the NCAA Tournament come March. This weekend alone, there is the run-and-gun Memphis-Arizona game, Wisconsin taking on Texas, two ten-win teams squaring off in Pittsburgh and Dayton and a couple of major-conference sleepers in West Virginia and Oklahoma going at it. However, the best game on the docket this weekend is one that includes two definite Sweet Sixteen contenders: Tennessee and its stable of athletic scorers heading west to take on Gonzaga, the perennial power.
Tennessee came into the season as the heavy favorite to win the SEC, but struggled a little bit to open the season, beating West Virginia by just two and then getting obliterated by Texas in New Jersey. Since then, the Volunteers have ripped off six consecutive victories, including a come-from-behind win against Xavier on the road last weekend. Tennessee is the No. 20 ranked team in offensive efficiency and the No. 47 ranked group at the other end of the floor. The Volunteers have one of the deepest, most athletic squads in the country. It starts on the perimeter with All-America candidate Chris Lofton, a senior guard who has struggled shooting the ball this season. Flanking him is JaJuan Smith, a solid scorer and shooter who can also play solid defense, and the two-headed point guard of Ramar Smtih and Jordan Howell. Smith is more of a scorer and playmaker, while Howell is a heady player who doesn’t turn the ball over. Up front, Tyler Smith has made an immediate impact after coming over from Iowa and contributes in a variety of ways. Wayne Chism is a good inside-outside scorer who needs to get tougher down low. The Vols have 12 players averaging double-figure minutes, including Arizona transfer J.P. Prince, who is the second-leading scorer on the team. Cameron Tatum and Josh Tabb see time in the backcourt, while Brian Williams and Ryan Childress lead the way up front. Duke Crews is out indefinitely with heart problems.
Gonzaga is always the favorite to be one of the better non-BCS teams, win the West Coast Conference and make it past the first weekend in the NCAA Tournament. This season was no different, but the Bulldogs have already dropped three games, to Texas Tech, Washington State (at home) and Oklahoma. Furthermore, Saint Mary’s figures to battle the Bulldogs atop the WCC. Gonzaga ranks No. 36 in offensive efficiency and No. 21 in defensive efficiency. The Bulldogs are led by guards Jeremy Pargo and Matt Bouldin. Pargo is a quick playmaker who can get into the lane, while Bouldin is a very good all-around performer. Freshman Austin Daye has made an immediate impact on the wing, showing his immense potential. Forwards Micah Downs and David Pendergraft are two more players who can do a variety of things and are consistent long-range shooters. The key, though, is the return of big man Josh Heytvelt, who missed most of the season with an injured foot. When he is in the game, he gives the Bulldogs a legit post player who can score and rebound. Abdullahi Kuso has been decent as his replacement, but he is no Heytvelt. Off the bench, Steven Gray is a good shooter and ball-handler, while Larry Gurganious and Robert Sacre also provide quality depth.
Although it is one of the last marquee non-conference match-ups of the season, Tennessee vs. Gonzaga should be an outstanding game. Both teams are very deep; they like to get up-and-down the floor in transition but also have the ability and personnel to get points and defend in a half-court setting. Tennessee will press the entire game, especially after made baskets, hoping to force turnovers and create easy baskets. Gonzaga has players who can run the floor, but it also has plenty of good shooters who can get open in the half-court, which makes them more difficult to defend. If Tennessee is to go on the road and knock off the Bulldogs, it is going to have to force turnovers. Jeremy Pargo is very quick but he also has a tendency to try and do too much, which can lead to easy baskets for the Volunteers. Furthermore, the Volunteers are going to have to slow down Josh Heytvelt down low. He is not fully healthy yet, but he is a far better post player than anyone Tennessee has. The Vols have plenty of fouls to throw at Heytvelt and try to knock him off his game. Third, Tennessee has to knock down its shots. Chris Lofton has struggled all season with his shooting, and Ramar Smith has been awful from behind the arc. The Vols need to hit their open three-point shots.
On the other side, Gonzaga has to limit the turnovers and stop Tennessee from getting transition baskets. Outside of Pargo and Matt Bouldin, Gonzaga doesn’t have many ball-handlers, so those two are going to have to take care of the ball. Secondly, the Bulldogs have to try and make it a half-court game if possible. Tennessee is more comfortable in a full-court environment, and could struggle to defend all of Gonzaga’s offensive options. Finally, Gonzaga should take advantage of its mismatches. Austin Daye is a 6-10 small forward, while Tennessee uses the 6-3 JaJuan Smith as its third perimeter player. Daye should be able to score against Smith down low. Down low, Heytvelt is better and/or stronger than the Vols’ Wayne Chism and Brian Williams. In the end, expect Gonzaga to bring home the big non-conference victory due to its home-court advantage and ability to play consistent basketball in a half-court setting. Tennessee’s reliance on turnovers and transition could hurt them Saturday.
Prediction: Gonzaga 79, Tennessee 75