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Next Up - Gonzaga

A titanic match looms in the desert

Syndication: The Commercial Appeal
Chet Holmgren defends Paolo Banchero on a drive during the Iverson Classic All-American Game at Bartlett High School on Saturday, May 8, 2021.
Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Being a bit slow, it took us awhile to realize that the Citadel Bulldogs were on the schedule for a reason: the offensive pressure of that system is a reasonable approximation of what Gonzaga Bulldogs do.

The Bulldog stretch of Duke’s schedule is half over. Duke played Gardner-Webb and The Citadel already and get Gonzaga Friday and South Carolina State on December 14th. We’re not sure we’ve ever seen that many Bulldogs in one season, let alone a few weeks.

But the truth is that the only team likely to beat Duke takes the court Friday and Gonzaga is very good indeed. Let us take a minute to marvel at what Mark Few has accomplished. At a small school in a relatively minor conference in a distant and rural part of the country, Few has built an absolute juggernaut. The Zags are as good as anyone now, year in and year out. It’s a stunning rise.

The Zags toyed with UCLA Tuesday night, winning 83-63 and this not long after whipping Texas 86-74.

What do those two teams have in common?

Not much of an inside game (and, we might add, while both coaches are big on toughness, neither has a particularly tough team right now).

That’ll probably be different for Gonzaga when they play Duke. Featuring Mark Williams (7-0 sophomore), Theo John (6-9 grad student) and Paolo Banchero (6-10 freshman), the Blue Devils can at least approximate Gonzaga’s size if not necessarily the exact skill sets.

Surprisingly to us anyway, Drew Timme, celebrated for his exquisite footwork and fundamentals, is only fifth in minutes played. The junior is 6-10 and 235 and overcomes his average athleticism with his outstanding skills.

But Holmgren is the guy people probably most want to see. At 7-0 but just 195, Holmgren is a remarkable mix of outside shooting, ballhandling and shotblocking. And, we should also say, passing: he’s a very good passer and able to see over just about anyone to do it.

Despite his thin frame, he’s proven to be surprisingly tough.

Duke has a chance to match up reasonably well with the biggest Bulldogs. We don’t know what Coach K and staff are planning obviously, but Williams has the length and athleticism to play off of Timme a bit and still guard effectively and Banchero has played extensively against Holmgren in AAU/summer ball.

This is not the end-all and be-all but Banchero is 250 while Williams and John are both 242. In fact, this may be the first time that Williams has had a significant strength advantage (over Holmgren, not necessarily Timme).

Andrew Nemhard is a 6-5 senior who runs the show for the Zags. A Florida transfer, he’s won great praise from Mark Few for his ability to direct the team. He’s not as much of a threat to shoot but on this team doesn't need to be. He’s an outstanding leader.

Rasir Bolton, a 6-3 senior, and Julian Strawther, a 6-7 native of Vegas who is playing at home this week, also start.

One of the reasons Gonzaga has done so well is that they can space the floor for Timme and, to a lesser extent so far, Holmgren inside, because Strawther (52.2 percent), Bolton (47.6 percent) and Nembhard (41.2 percent) force defenses to be honest.

They’re also a fairly athletic trio.

Although Gonzaga and Purdue probably have the best pairs of big men in the country, Duke’s inside players are as good as any trio. But they’re going to need help. Fortunately, Duke has some good candidates for that.

Wendell Moore is off to a sensational junior season. He is light years beyond where he was last year and is a significant defender. At 6-6, he is extremely versatile. Freshman Trevor Keels is 6-5, quite strong and is also a willing defender. Jeremy Roach will probably be the smallest starter for either team but we’ve been impressed with his balance and ability to really get after someone on defense. He’s able to really get next to someone and to adjust his body to whatever his opponent does. It’s a real talent.

The Blue Devils also bring Joey Baker and AJ Griffin in from the bench and both are also willing defenders. Jaylen Blakes probably won’t play a lot in this one but he’ll work on that end too.

And while it might surprise us it wouldn’t shock us to see Bates Jones get more minutes than anyone expects because he’s exceptionally smart and against certain defenses, might be a great asset.

Clearly Gonzaga deserves to be #1. They’ve blown out then #5 Texas and #2 UCLA Tuesday night. It’s possible they’re better than they were last season.

But it’s also true that no one has really beaten them up yet.

We’re not suggesting that Duke should literally beat them up of course, but how will the Zags react to a team of basically equal talent that’s pursuing them all over the court? What happens if Williams guards Timme and stays a couple of feet away - which he should be able to do? If he doesn’t bite on Timme’s exquisite footwork, what’s Timme’s Plan B? He’s not really a three point shooter.

The potential matchup between Williams and Holmgren is also fascinating. If you watched the Zags play UCLA, you saw Holmgren go behind his back like a much smaller player. We’re not saying he can’t do that against Duke, but we’d like to remind you that, among his many talents, Williams has had quick hands against smaller, quicker ball handlers. It’s something to keep in mind if he guards Holmgren.

The danger to Duke, we think, is potential foul trouble dealing with these extraordinary talents. That would cause some major issues.

Of course, the matchups go both ways. Who will Timme guard? What will Holmgren do with a guy his size who may possibly jump higher and who is definitely thicker? And what does Gonzaga do with Banchero?

We’ve seen his mobility. He’s not quite as tall as Holmgren but he’s a better ball handler. Timme is a wonderful player but we haven’t watched him enough to really understand his defensive game. Unless Gonzaga goes zone, he’ll have to guard someone who is quicker, stronger or taller, meaning Banchero, John or Williams.

Right now, we’d give the edge to Gonzaga. Both teams are playing solid defense but Gonzaga’s ability to push the offense and to hit three pointers is probably ahead of Duke’s, although it wouldn’t shock us if Duke got really hot from behind the line.

However, we saw in New York that Banchero and Keels are able to step up to the moment and we’ve seen Williams show immense flashes this season but generally against smaller opponents that present different sorts of challenges than versatile, talented big men like Gonzaga has.

We’re going to watch some video and think more about this matchup between now and Friday night. It’s going to be a major challenge for Duke but of the teams that Gonzaga has played so far, the Blue Devils have the size to challenge and the defense to compensate if the offense isn’t firing on all cylinders.

We’re not sure how this will play out exactly, but we think Duke will give Gonzaga a bigger challenge than either Texas or UCLA managed to do. However, DraftKings has Gonzaga favored by -7. So we’ll see Friday night.