PORTLAND – Gonzaga coach Mark Few spent most of the Wednesday before the NCAA Tournament talking about how good Georgia State was, insisting that the Panthers were better than a 16 seed.
Then Georgia State spent most of Thursday afternoon proving Few right, before Gonzaga, the overall No. 1 seed and a program still in search of its first national championship, pulled away for a 93-72 win that was much closer than the final score indicated .
Next up for the Zags: A date with ninth-seeded Memphis, which beat Boise State (and Mark Few protege Leon Rice) 64-53 in the first round.
The Tigers – whose players said Friday they think of Saturday more as a “1 vs. 1 ”given how they’ve played the last few weeks – are a tough, physical team who could give Gonzaga problems.
“We do match up with them well,” said Lester Quinones of Memphis. “It’s not a David vs. Goliath at all. I wouldn’t give them an advantage over us… I’m confident going into this game. ”
“I feel like it’s a No. 1 seed vs. a No. 1 seed, ”added Landers Nolley. “It’s going to be a good ballgame.”
Few, along with Gonzaga star forward Drew Timme, said the team that most resembles Memphis is Texas Tech, which Gonzaga beat 69-55 in mid-December. Timme said the Tigers also remind him of fellow WCC team Saint Mary’s, (right before sounding off on the lack of respect the WCC continues to get, even though it put three teams in the tournament this year).
“They’re really good at being in the gap and also being on your man,” said Timme, who leads Gonzaga at 18 points per game, and scored 22 of his 32 in the second half Thursday. “So you look open, but you’re really not open in reality, you know? They do a good job of disguising their defense. ”
Few called Memphis “the whole package: the pressing, the physicality … it’s something you try to prepare for all year.”
Memphis, which has won seven of its last eight, is led by fourth-year coach Penny Hardaway, the former NBA All-Star. The Tigers boast a balanced attack, with six players who average eight or more points, led by freshman center Jalen Duren (12.1 points, 8.2 rebounds).
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Gonzaga, of course, is home to one of the nation’s best players in 7-foot freshman phenom Chet Holmgren, a future NBA lottery pick. Holmgren can do everything: score (14.4 points per game), rebound (9.8), block shots (3.7), set up teammates to score (1.9 assists), lead the break (see the internet for his many full-court dunks). Duren will draw the task of guarding Holmgren. Hardaway said the most important thing for Duren to do in terms of slowing Holmgren is stay out of foul trouble.
Few called the frontcourt matchup “daunting.”
“They are extremely athletic and big and play with force, and that’s going to be a real challenge for us,” Few said. “It will be a challenge for us keeping them off the glass. They’re incredible, their physicality and their athleticism and nose for the ball, rebounding-wise. We’re going to have a toughness about us finishing around the rim, too. “
Gonzaga looked far from its best self Thursday, but the Zags have long been one of the best, and most efficient, offensive programs in the country; they lead college basketball in scoring in 2021-22 and ranked No. 1 in KenPom. Memphis, which often flusters teams into playing faster than they want, will have its hands full trying to speed up a team that already plays fast.
So how exactly does one make a fast team play even faster?
“That’s a good question!” Hardaway said with a laugh. They “play the right way, and the right way is getting the ball up the court, they don’t take plays off. How do you speed up a team that’s already fast? I don’t know. I have another day to try to get this together. ”