Record books point to it being the first meeting between Gonzaga and Alabama, but the familiarity between the players and programs competing at the Battle in Seattle could make it feel anything but.
Alabama’s fast-paced, high-powered offense isn’t one-dimensional, but Gonzaga’s top defensive priority on Saturday should be Jaden Shackelford. The junior guard leads the Crimson Tide in scoring (18.0 ppg) and poses a threat from the perimeter, connecting on 39.1% of his attempts from 3-point range.
This will signify Gonzaga’s first encounter with Shackelford, but Bulldogs point guard Andrew Nembhard has gone head-to-head with the Alabama guard on one other occasion that neither player is likely to forget: a 104-98 double-overtime win for Florida over SEC rival Alabama in January of 2020.
Shackelford spent long stretches guarding Nembhard in that game, trading off with teammate James Bolden, but Florida’s floor general didn’t face much resistance en route to matching his career high with 25 points on 8-of-19 shooting from the field and an 8-of-9 day from the free-throw line.
“Their guard plays very good,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “They’ve got a good program, they play the right way, they move the ball.
Nembhard, a 6-foot-5 point guard, wasn’t the primary defender on the 6-3 Shackelford in the 2020 game, but it’s possible he’ll adopt that role on Saturday if the Zags decide that 6-3 Rasir Bolton is a better fit to guard 6-1 Alabama junior Jahvon Quinerly.
Bolton played the Crimson Tide once at Iowa State, though it came prior to Oats replacing Avery Johnson as Alabama’s coach. The transfer guard logged just 16 minutes and scored three points in a nine-point loss.
Alabama’s wild card may be five-star freshman JD Davison, an explosive guard who averaged 38 points per game as a high school senior and gained attention for his above-the-rim playing style. Three of GU’s four freshmen, Chet Holmgren, Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis, got a good look at Davison during the Iverson Classic all-star event earlier this year.
“He’s a great player, very talented and highly athletic, great downhill driver,” Holmgren said. “He can finish at the highest level, up above by the rim so just trying to limit that.”
Oats and his staff didn’t recruit Holmgren or Hickman, but they did take a stab at Sallis, offering the five-star combo guard out of Omaha, Nebraska, during the recruiting process. Alabama was among Sallis’ final 12 schools, but the Crimson Tide didn’t make the cut when the Gonzaga freshman released his top eight.
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