SALT LAKE CITY – South Dakota State finally in the rear-view mirror, Gonzaga sophomore guard Josh Perkins walked inside Vivint Smart Home Arena to catch 10 minutes of the Northwestern-Vanderbilt game.
He saw a sea of purple supporting Northwestern’s maiden NCAA tournament voyage.
“It was loud in there,” Perkins said. “They were friendly to me, it was kind of weird. Really nice people but I’m sure when that ball goes in the air, it’ll turn real quick.”
The top-seeded Zags (33-1) are essentially considering it as a road game Saturday when they face No. 8 Northwestern (24-11) with a trip to the NCAA Sweet 16 on the line.
“We do look forward to that,” junior guard Silas Melson said. “That’s what we want. We like playing with our backs against the wall. We like playing when fans are against us. That brings more fun, brings more competitiveness to us and brings out our best.”
Gonzaga’s offense wasn’t nearly at its best against South Dakota State, which cluttered the paint with defenders and dared the rest of the Zags to connect from the perimeter.
Will other teams try to mimick SDSU’s strategy?
“I would think,” coach Mark Few said, “but that’s what they (the Jackrabbits) do. I don’t necessarily think when you get into the NCAA tournament and have one day of prep you switch everything you’re doing. We could see anything.”
Northwestern’s defense is one of the better units in the nation. The Wildcats yield 65.1 points (34th) on 40.3-percent shooting (23rd). They’re undersized with a 6-foot-8, 235-pound Dererk Pardon at center, but still rank 19th in blocked shots.
“If we’re making shots they have to guard us and then we can use our advantage with Przemek (Karnowski), Z-bo (Zach Collins) and J3 (Johnathan Williams),” Perkins said. “That’s probably the first time I’ve ever experienced that kind of defense. Hopefully our shots go in (Saturday).”
Gonzaga’s offensive approach rarely changes. The Zags want to feed the bigs, see if the defense guards solo or brings a double team and adjust accordingly.
The Zags eventually had some success in the paint Thursday but not at their usual efficiency. They did some damage with 14 offensive rebounds, leading to 15 points.
“We’re always going to attack inside out,” said assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, who compiled the scouting report. “We want to play with more pace on offense. Then it comes down to, how can they guard our posts and if they bring a double how do we handle that. It’s step by step.”
Northwestern guard Sanjay Lumpkin said the Zags remind him of Purdue because of their shooting ability and size “we face a lot with both (6-9 Caleb) Swanigan and (7-2 Isaac) Haas.”
Wildcats coach Chris Collins watched several Gonzaga games Friday night, including the lone loss to BYU. He compared the Zags’ transition game to Michigan State’s, and that Nigel Williams-Goss “makes them go.”
Junior guard Bryant McIntosh, who scored 25 points in the victory over Vanderbilt, and wing Scottie Lindsey pace an offense that takes care of the ball (14th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio).
“Fundamentally sound team offensively and defensively,” Williams-Goss said. “Don’t make a whole lot of mistakes.”
Northwestern fans will be making most of the noise inside the building, and Gonzaga, once the tournament darlings as underdogs, can appreciate the Wildcats’ feel-good story.
“It’s really cool,” Lloyd said. “We were that team one day. But it’s pretty cool to be on the other side of it 18 years later, too.”
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