DENVER – The Gonzaga Bulldogs take on a nationally ranked opponent coached by a close friend of Gonzaga’s Mark Few that features a prolific scoring guard but is missing a key interior player.
Hmm, sounds a little like Thursday’s match-up against St. John’s, coached by Few’s buddy Steve Lavin, led by guard Dwight Hardy, but missing injured forward D.J. Kennedy.
BYU is coached by Dave Rose, a cancer survivor whose speech at Few’s Coaches-vs.-Cancer event last summer left many in the audience teary-eyed. Guard Jimmer Fredette is a player of the year candidate, but the Cougars are still adjusting to the loss of forward Brandon Davies, who was suspended for violating the school’s honor code.
The 11th-seeded Bulldogs (25-9) face third-seeded BYU (31-4) at 4:45 (PDT) at the Pepsi Center with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16. Gonzaga trampled St. John’s 86-71 to set up a date with future WCC rival and 10th-ranked BYU, a 74-66 winner over Wofford.
Gonzaga hopes to contain Fredette and take advantage of its interior size against a smaller front court. Fredette leads the nation in scoring at 28.6 points per game. He has six 40-point games in his career and dropped 52 on New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinals. He has 2,533 career points and recently surpassed Danny Ainge to become BYU’s all-time leading scorer.
“Everybody that has played them this year has tried to figure that out,” Bulldogs assistant coach Ray Giacoletti said of defending Fredette. “If you think you’ve figured something out, then he proves you wrong. We just have to try to do the best job we can of contesting. He’s going to hit shots, tough shots and crazy shots, but the one thing we can’t do is foul him on shot fakes and put him on the line because he makes a living there.”
Gonzaga’s defense will start roughly when Fredette crosses halfcourt, if not sooner should the Zags elect to apply back-court pressure. Fredette, who scored 32 points on 10-of-25 shooting against Wofford, drained one 3-pointer from nearly 30 feet.
“He’s dropping 30 on everybody since the start of the season so it’ll be a tough task,” said junior guard Demetri Goodson, who helped limit Hardy to 26 points on 10-of-23 shooting. “Just pick him up fullcourt a little, turn him a little bit, try to tire him out with my quickness and always try to be there on the catch because as soon as he crosses halfcourt he’s a threat to score.”
Fredette has seen an assortment of defenses. Hawaii’s triangle-and-two was probably the most unique.
“The ‘two’ were on him,” BYU forward Noah Hartsock said. “Every time he caught the ball they trapped him. I remember that it didn’t work too well. We got a lot of open shots.”
Fredette scored just 16 points, but BYU made 50 percent of its shots and won 78-57.
Fredette has attempted at least 21 shots in BYU’s last eight games, including 37 in the New Mexico game. He’s scored at least 21 points in every game since Jan. 1.
“My brother and father have always taught me when it comes to shooting to have short-term memory loss,” Fredette said. “The last shot that you took doesn’t matter anymore. It’s all about the next one.”
Fredette isn’t BYU’s only threat. Senior guard Jackson Emery is averaging 12.5 points, but his production has declined since Davies was dismissed six games ago.
“You’re not going to bother (Fredette’s) shot because it’s so high with his release,” Giacoletti said. “They won’t ball-screen as much as Saint Mary’s. They did it every trip and maybe four or five times a possession. BYU will do it here and there. A pretty good comparison is (Saint Mary’s) Mickey McConnell, but don’t forget about Emery. He can shoot it and bounce it, a lot like (the Gaels’ Matthew) Dellavedova, along with McConnell.”
BYU has a long list of concerns, perhaps beginning with Gonzaga’s 43-20 rebounding domination against St. John’s. The Cougars are plus-2 on the boards, but they’ve been outrebounded in three of six games without Davies.
“That will be a huge key to the game,” Cougars forward Charles Abouo said.
Gonzaga scored 34 points in the paint and drained 9 of 15 3s against St. John’s. The Zags also hit 81 percent of their free throws.
“It’s going to have to be a total team effort,” Hartsock said. “We’re short-handed. As soon as they get it inside, we have to work hard to get it out of their hands. And then we have to recover to the shooters because they’re shooting it so well.”