BOISE – The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is usually the most entertaining as underdogs take a swing at blue bloods and immediately became national darlings if they pull off an upset.
Gonzaga understands this better than anyone, following that recipe in the formative years of its two-decade streak of tourney appearances. The Zags have long been on the other side of the equation: the power program with a high seed carrying the favorite’s role.
On the opposing sideline is upstart UNC Greensboro, which has a puncher’s chance in Thursday’s opening-round matchup at Taco Bell Arena.
Just like the Zags in their early NCAA Tournament years, the Spartans possess many key attributes that work on basketball’s biggest stage.
Here’s what the 13th-seeded Spartans (27-7) do best, and what No. 4 Gonzaga (30-4) can do to counter.
The Spartans fire away from behind the 3-point line, often basketball’s great equalizer. Only nine teams attempted more 3s than UNCG’s 917.
Junior guard Francis Alonso hit 110 of 270 3-pointers. Small forward Marvin Smith made 75 3s. Point guard Demetrius Troy hit just less than 40 percent from distance. Even 6-foot-9, 250-pound center Jordy Kuiper nailed 38 3-pointers.
“Actually (when I played) in Spain, if I shot a jumper I had to run suicides for my team,” Kuiper said. “We have incredible shooters, and next to me (at the interview table) is probably the best shooter (Alonso) in the country, the best shooter I’ve ever seen.”
Gonzaga’s Silas Melson is the probable defender on Alonso, but every Zag will have to be prepared to chase multiple Spartans off the 3-point line.
“That’s the one thing we have to focus on,” Melson said.
The press. No, not the media, but UNCG’s 1-2-2 three-quarter court pressure.
UNCG’s defensive numbers rank with the nation’s best, thanks to the ability to pressure most of the floor and then fall back into half-court man defense.
In 27 wins, the Spartans held opponents to less than 40 percent shooting. In 19 of their 34 games, opponents failed to crack 30 percent on 3-pointers.
“They always say what travels is defense and rebounding and those have been our identity all year,” Kuiper said. “When we’re all committed, we’re all talking, getting one stop at a time, I’ll take our defense against any team in the nation.”
The Zags have one of the most efficient offenses in the nation, but they had issues at times against Villanova’s and Texas’ press. The Spartans use the pressure to create turnovers and/or drain time off the shot clock.
“I’d say Villanova,” said Zags point guard Josh Perkins, when asked for a comparison to UNCG’s press. “It’s our job to take care of the ball and get in offense a little earlier rather than set up and call a play. We just have to play.”
The standout guard, a prerequisite to NCAA Tournament success. Alonso, who played with ex-Zag Domantas Sabonis on youth squads in Spain, is capable of carrying his team. He’s had three 30-plus points game, all with at least seven made 3-pointers.
“I heard he was good friends with Domas, so I’m definitely going to shoot him a text and see whose friendship he values more,” Perkins cracked. “Gonna put Domas in a tough spot.”
Gonzaga relies on balance with different players taking the spotlight on a given night. Killian Tillie was the MVP of the WCC Tournament but didn’t make first-team All-WCC. Those honors went to Perkins, Rui Hachimura and Johnathan Williams.
“They’re a team that has a lot of belief,” said Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, who compiled the scouting report. “They’re going to come in ready for a fistfight, a great offensive rebounding team. So they do a lot of the things that separate victories from defeats and allow you to hang in games.”
The ability to put together game-changing runs, typically with defense creating offense. Gonzaga hung a 36-4 run on BYU in the WCC Tournament title game. UNCG had a 41-12 burst in a road win over NCAA Tournament participant North Carolina State.
“Being in a win-or-go-home situation, you pay attention to everything,” GU guard Zach Norvell Jr. said. “We don’t want any surprises.”
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