Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
-- Along with Davidson at Duke, a rematch of the Old Spice Classic final highlights tonight’s schedule, as #56 Tennessee (9-3) hosts #70 Gonzaga (8-4).
The Bulldogs have lost four of their last five and three straight, including losing a home game to Portland St. just before the holiday break. They missed a couple of short-range attempts in the final seconds to drop a game at Utah. Tennessee is also coming in off a disappointing performance, beaten at Kansas on Saturday. The Volunteers do have a couple of very impressive wins over Georgetown and Marquette, but also lost badly at Temple.
Looking at the boxscore from the previous matchup between the two teams, there are a few points of interest. Gonzaga shot very well in that game, hitting over 50% from the field and 11-20 from three, but had a disastrous evening on the boards, getting just 4 offensive rebounds, while Tennessee picked up half of its own misses. The Vols needed these possessions, as their shooting numbers were weak, hitting under 40% from the field. Tennessee has a reputation for forcing turnovers, but lost the turnover margin by 7 in the late November game; had it managed to keep the margin even, the game likely would have come right down to the wire.
In their recent losses, the Bulldogs have seen their shooting go south, and they will need to do better to break out of their funk, as they don’t get many offensive boards and get to the free throw line infrequently. Gonzaga will have an advantage in turnovers, as they typically commit few, and as I mentioned above, Tennessee hasn’t forced many this season, despite their high pace of play. Tennessee’s November success on the defensive glass has also been a season-long trend, and another significant possession advantage for the Vols wouldn’t surprise at all.
Tennessee shot under 40% from inside the arc in the first matchup, and they cannot afford to do that again, as they aren’t good three-point shooters. In its last two losses, Gonzaga has faced opponents that took more than 50% of its shots from behind the arc, and in doing so both Utah and Portland St. exposed Gonzaga’s biggest defensive weakness, something Tennessee will struggle to do. In order to make up for this, Tennessee must fight on the offensive glass as it did in Orlando, and will need to generate high-percentage second chances inside.
Gonzaga depends on a rotation of six players, and has some questions about depth. Jeremy Pargo is the point guard, and while his three point shooting has not been good, he’s been an effective distributor this season, leading the WCC in assists and putting up a 2.7 A/TO ratio. Matt Bouldin averages two steals a game, and is a solid scorer from both inside and outside, though he struggled against UConn and Utah. Sophomore Steven Gray takes a lot of threes, but his percentage is well down from his first season; he’s made up for it with his performance inside, where he’s shooting over 66%. Micah Downs is 6-8, but you wouldn’t know it from his shot selection, he’s the team’s most prevalent three point shooter, and one of the more effective ones. Senior Josh Heytvelt leads the team in both scoring and rebounding, and it’s been his shooting woes (just 8-29 in the last two games) that can be linked to the Bulldogs’ recent struggles. One major strength of Heytvelt’s game is turnovers, he’s committed only 8 all season, one of the best rates in the nation. Austin Daye takes more shots than anyone on the team, but isn’t that efficient with his attempts, under 45%. At 6-11, he’s a good rebounding partner alongside Heytvelt, and is one of the WCC’s better shot blockers.
Tennessee is a much more balanced team in terms of playing time, featuring 9 players who play at least 15 minutes a game. Bobby Maze is the team’s point guard, leading the Vols in both steals and assists, and he’s a pretty solid shooter, though he doesn’t take many shots. Josh Tabb is a 6-4 guard who has been an efficient scorer, but takes very few shots, something the Vols would probably like to change. Freshman Scotty Hopson has struggled with turnovers, but has showed some solid offensive talent as a starter. J.P Prince has recently returned from injury, and provides Tennessee with a good inside scorer and rebounder. The Vols really depend on their two inside stars, juniors Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism. Smith is a very good inside shooter who also does well at the free throw line and averages nearly 4 assists a game, while Chism leads the team in blocks and rebounds, and is an effective scorer down low who has really improved his free throw shooting. Freshman Cameron Tatum has had some strong performances, but has struggled to find consistent form, and is one of the few Vols who takes more threes than twos. 6-10 Brian Williams has become more of an offensive focus this season with mixed results, but his strength is rebounding, as he averages 7 rebounds in 16 minutes a game. Renaldo Woolridge takes a lot of shots in relatively few minutes, and he hits just enough to stay efficient.
Tennessee should probably be a slight favorite for this game, given Gonzaga’s poor form, but I’m going to pick the Bulldogs to turn things around with a victory. The key in this game will be Gonzaga’s offensive execution, as I think it will be able to hold Tennessee’s scoring in check, especially given the Vols’ relative weakness from behind the arc. If Gonzaga can find the offensive form it showed against Connecticut, a win is definitely within its sights. If it can’t, Tennessee should be able to defend its home court.
Winner: Gonzaga Margin: 3-7
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.