Nevermind all that business about Thursday’s game with Lipscomb being the last time we could assume victory this year: the Bisons opened the game on an 8-0 run, used a 14-0 run to take a 13-point lead midway through the first half, and led 58-43 with 1:22 to play before halftime on the strength of 11 first half threes. But the Vols cut it back to nine at the break, then weren’t having any of it in the second half: the Vols outscored Lipscomb 43-19 in the second frame to win 92-77. Tennessee’s two post freshmen were the big story: Grant Williams scored 30 points on 10 of 12 shooting, but John Fulkerson went down early with a nasty-looking elbow injury.
There’s no rest for the weary or the wounded: undefeated #8 Gonzaga is next, Sunday evening in Nashville. It’s a return match from last year’s Battle in Seattle which saw the Bulldogs race to a 19-point first half lead before the Vols made a furious late-night rally to regain the lead with nine minutes to play. In a tie game with two minutes to play, Gonzaga went on a 7-0 run to seal the deal.
To preview the run-it-back, we traded questions and answers with Peter Woodburn of SB Nation’s Gonzaga blog Slipper Still Fits:
Gonzaga has generally been steamrolling teams in this 10-0 start. Anything in particular teams like Florida or Iowa State did to give themselves a chance?
The Florida and Iowa State games were interesting. In Florida, the Zags played a wretched first half, but then were able to fight back in the second half to take it. Against Iowa State, the Zags played the best first half of their lives, and then held off a furious rally by Iowa State to win by a couple points. The two teams were able to capitalize on the short bouts of silence the Zags have tended to go on this season, but those bouts are getting shorter and shorter. Gonzaga has approximately 8 million new faces on the squad this season, and it has taken some noticeable time to gel. During those periods, the offense gets rather disjointed, and the defense also suffers because its backpedaling the entire time. However, these instances have appeared in most every game so far this season. If Tennessee senses blood during a quiet spell from the Zags, they need to go for the throat, much like Iowa State did. Unfortunately, the Cyclones had dug too deep a hole in the first half of that game to make it all the way back, but with the ball in their hands as the game clock expired, they sure gave it a helluva shot.
Tennessee likes to run and may need to do so to help negate Gonzaga's advantage in the post. How have the Bulldogs dealt with up-tempo teams so far this year?
The Zags have played some uptempo teams, but none have really been of quality. The game against Washington was supposed to be a good look at that, but the Huskies were such a trainwreck on the offensive end it was really hard to make any takeaways from it all. That said, the Gonzaga frontcourt can run. Tennessee can take advantage when Przemek Karnowski is lumbering down the floor, but Johnathan Williams, Zach Collins, and Killian Tillie all know how to fast break. The key for the Zags will be on the defensive transitions. This is a team that has found a lot of success playing a zone defense this season. It is a bit hard to set up the zone when you are sprinting back to your defensive assignment, so we will see if Gonzaga mixes it up a bit and tries some half court presses or traps to slow the pace down. Normally, this is a team that doesn't like to charge straight ahead for 40 minutes per game, so look for the Zags to try and force the tempo to a slower pace.
This is a different set of names at the top of the box score than the one Tennessee saw last year in Seattle with Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis in the NBA. For fans who haven't seen Gonzaga yet this year, who are the players to watch?
Short answer: all of them. This is the most loaded Gonzaga team we have had in forever, both in terms of experience balance and in terms of athleticism. But we'll do a quick rundown. Przemek Karnowski: 7'0 monster in the post that is one of the best passing big men in the entire nation and anchors the defense. Josh Perkins: sharp-shooting combo guard that has emerged as Zags premier three-point threat (hitting 53.7 percent this year). Jordan Mathews: hired grad-transfer assassin from Cal, also can hit three-pointers at will. Nigel Williams-Goss: pre-season hype combo guard, leads team in scoring. Zach Collins: athletic and hard working freshman 7'0, tends to pick up fouls, but will make the sportscenter top 10 play if there is one in the game. Rem Bakamus: creator of the three-tar and the premier bench hype squad before Monmouth started taking all the glory.
How good can this Gonzaga team be?
This Gonzaga squad can be a Final Four team if everything falls into place. They are more balanced offensively than they have been in years. Four players average double-digit points, with Johnathan Williams at 9.5 and Jordan Mathews at 9.4 bringing up the rear. Defensively, this team has the length and the athleticism to compete with virtually anyone in the country. They haven't necessarily played a legitimate top 10 team yet, and won't until the NCAA Tournament, but they showed grit in wins over good Iowa State, Florida, and Arizona teams. Both BYU and Saint Mary's are having good seasons, so the Zags will get some hard competition in a few WCC games, but realistically, it is on the coaching staff and the players to perform in the NCAA Tournament after showing they have the promise early on. So much needs to happen for a Final Four run to work, and the Zags could easily face off against Kentucky or Duke in the Elite Eight and be wiped off the face of the Earth, but we'll tend to that situation in March. As of now, saying Gonzaga is a Final Four team is hardly a stretch.