Wednesday November 25th 9:00am PST on ESPN2
Oh Gonzaga vs. Washington. The rivalry so fierce that it destroyed itself. And now born again a year ahead of schedule thanks to the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
The Bulldogs are enjoying a long run of success and there is no reason to believe it will end soon. To play them on a neutral court provides Washington's best opportunity to secure a true marquee non-conference victory. Unfortunately, beating Gonzaga is damn hard.
The Zags are officially 2-0 with wins against overmatched Northern Arizona and Mount St. Mary's. They opened the season in Okinawa against Pitt and trailed significantly after the first half, but the game was canceled due to a dangerously slick floor.
Husky fans can choose to be encouraged by that poor first half of play, but it's likely foolish to read too much in to a game that was basically played on ice.
Projected Starting Five: G Josh Perkins (RSFr., 6-3, 185), G Eric McClellan (Sr., 6-4, 196), G Kyle Dranginis (Sr., 6-5, 203), F Kyle Wiltjer (Sr., 6-10, 240), C Przemek Karnowski (Sr., 7-1, 287)
Bench: F Domantas Sabonis (So., 6-11, 240), G Bryan Alberts (RSFr., 6-5, 198), G Silas Melson (So., 6-4, 186).
The signing of Josh Perkins came with a great deal of fanfare and after taking a year to prepare, the young guard has been thrust into the starting five.
Perkins has struggled from the floor (37% shooting) and turned the ball over too often (4.5 turnovers per game), yet his averages of 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals are majorly encouraging.
The other two starting guards, McClellan and Dranginis, are both senior role players that have picked their shots carefully before knocking them down at a fantastic rate. Neither seems likely to take over a game, but they will both hit the open three.
Kyle Wiltjer is a legitimate player of the year candidate after a dominant first year with the Zags. He has averaged 17.5 points on 44% shooting this season. That percentage is actually dragged down by uncharacteristically poor three-point shooting that is likely the product of small sample size.
It will be asking a lot for Washington's foul-happy freshmen to handle a 6-10 forward that can both score from anywhere on the floor and draw contact to earn extra production from the charity stripe.
But that's not all! Karnowski exists, the mountain of a man. No Husky can physically match up to this kid at 7-1, 287.
Sabonis will play starter's minutes even if he continues to serve as a sixth man. His domination against inferior opponents has been absurd. He will enter tomorrow's game shooting 82% from the field and averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds.
I fear that Few's ideal plan is to wait until Dickerson and Chriss pick up cheap fouls in the first few minutes before unleashing Sabonis once Romar is forced to rotate in some new bodies.
Also off the bench, Bryan Alberts has been red hot from deep, hitting 60% from beyond the arc despite attempting 5.0 threes per game. Silas Melson has managed to score at the third-best clip behind Sabonis and Wiltjer.
Essentially, this team boils down to three difference-making frontcourt players, a bunch of sweet-shooting guards, and a young playmaker-in-training in Perkins.
Basically every player complements those around him, and the skillsets of the three best players are not redundant. Try to flood the paint with defenders to deal with Sabonis and Karnowski and Gonzaga's shooters will rip you to shreds. Leave post defenders on an island against them and expect quick foul trouble. Oh, and Wiltjer will get his regardless.
If the Huskies are to win, they will do so via the same strategy they have employed in all three victories: frenetic energy. Romar's young squad has played fast, hard, and at times a little out of control. The turnovers and cheap fouls have been an acceptable trade off for Washington's surprisingly relentless defense and high tempo offense. The Huskies simply must outwork the Zags to have a chance.
This is a season with enormous potential and limited expectations for Washington. In that spirit, their plan must be to jump on a Gonzaga team that has not had time to gel and fully integrate new players and shock them in their first true test of the season.
I don't expect a win over one of the nation's best team from a bunch of true freshmen. I do expect a more uncomfortable game for the Bulldogs than Few and his players likely see coming.
Edit: The angry Zags fan that emailed me in the early hours of this morning would like it to be pointed out that Gonzaga did not trail "significantly" at the half. Rather Pitt led by two. I had forgotten the exact score and actually had some trouble looking it up because the invalidated box score has been scrubbed from the earth.