BOISE – Gonzaga handed Ohio State its worst loss of the season Nov. 23 at the PK80 Invitational in Portland.
It’s what has happened since that will determine the outcome of Saturday’s rematch in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Buckeyes didn’t look like an NCAA Tournament team in that 86-59 loss, but they certainly have from December to present day.
Fourth-seeded Gonzaga (31-4) and No. 5 Ohio State (25-8) renew acquaintances Saturday at Taco Bell Arena. Introductions won’t be necessary but neither team resembles the one that took the floor at Memorial Coliseum.
“Anything that happened in November has zero bearing on this game,” said assistant coach Brian Michaelson, who compiled Gonzaga’s scouting report. “They were five games into coach (Chris) Holtmann’s first season. They had a bunch of freshmen and some returners playing in a new system.
“They weren’t as far along as they are now. They’re much more complex, very physical, and their confidence has really grown.”
The evolution of both teams has been impressive. Ohio State, picked 11th in the Big Ten preseason poll, made a run at the title. The Buckeyes soared up the rankings with wins over then-No. 1 Michigan State and then-No. 3 Purdue.
By the Feb. 12 AP poll, OSU was ranked No. 8 and Gonzaga No. 9.
Shortly after the first meeting, the Buckeyes moved senior Kam Williams into the starting lineup. The guard came up with a pivotal four-point play late to steer the Buckeyes past South Dakota State on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Zach Norvell Jr. stepped into Gonzaga’s starting lineup when Corey Kispert suffered a sprained ankle on Nov. 29. Norvell has started every game since and delivered the winner against UNC Greensboro.
Rui Hachimura was just beginning to settle into Gonzaga’s system. He’s emerged as a key player in the rotation. OSU freshman forward Kaleb Wesson was breaking into the starting unit. Now, he’s a veteran of 28 starts.
“I don’t know if I did a great job early figuring out our personnel and how they fit,” Holtmann said. “Once we got a little rhythm, we as a coaching staff understood more of our guys’ strengths and that really helped us.”
Gonzaga shut down the Buckeyes and Big Ten player of the year Keita Bates-Diop in November. He finished with seven points and OSU made just 34.5 percent from the field.
“I remember any time I caught it in the midrange or got into the painted area, they would come and double team,” Bates-Diop said. “They went zone a lot and shaded my zone. I saw it a lot the rest of the season, so I’ve grown accustomed to it and pretty much know how to find my spots now and beat it.”
The Zags’ defense has steadily improved, but the Bulldogs haven’t used the zone lately.
“Because our man has been so good, that’s been our calling card,” Michaelson said.
Gonzaga’s other calling card has been offensive balance with five players averaging double figures.
“Obviously, the ball movement, we have more experience,” guard Josh Perkins said of the Zags’ development throughout the season. “Guys are more comfortable in their spots. We know how to win now.”
The Zags should enjoy another pro-Gonzaga crowd, just as in Portland, but they will also have to deal with a highly motivated opponent.
“Revenge is no joke,” wing Corey Kispert said. “It’s a powerful thing. We know we felt that with Saint Mary’s this year. It’s our job to go out and do what we do and take care of business.”
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