Gonzaga gets busy in a hurry after a short holiday break, beginning with North Alabama’s visit Tuesday.
COVID-19 and the omicron variant continue to mess with college basketball schedules and college football bowl games, but thus far the Zags’ schedule has seen only one change – Washington canceling a Dec. 12 game.
Fourth-ranked Gonzaga (10-2) entertains the Lions (7-5) at 2 p.m. Every GU game has tipped off between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. PT except for a 10 a.m. start in a 69-55 win over Texas Tech on Dec. 18 in Phoenix. Gonzaga-Washington was scheduled to tip at 2 p.m.
After facing North Alabama, the Zags are on the road to open the WCC campaign against San Diego on Thursday and Loyola Marymount on Saturday.
Gonzaga picked up its 10th victory of the season and its 58th consecutive home win – the longest active streak in the nation – by routing Northern Arizona 95-49 a week ago. After averaging 15.5 turnovers in a four-game stretch, the Zags committed a season-low five against the Lumberjacks and 10 vs. Texas Tech, tied for third lowest.
The turnover total will be worth monitoring against the Lions, who force 18.8 per game. That would rank 10th nationally, but North Alabama isn’t listed in NCAA stats because it’s in the final season of a four-year transition to Division I.
“It just comes down to guys making the right basketball decision,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of reducing turnovers. “We were doing great in (the NAU) game, and then we had a little run at the end of first half (five inside the final 5 minutes) where we decided to try to make hard plays.
“When we try to thread needles and throw the ball into tight windows, that seems to be when we have our most turnovers.”
The Lions have posted impressive defensive numbers – foes shoot 36.1% from the field, 28.3% on 3-pointers and average 58.8 points – but one-third of their games have been versus non-Division I opponents. The field-goal percentage defense would rank fourth and the scoring defense would rank 19th.
Gonzaga is No. 2 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency. The Zags rank second nationally in field-goal percentage (52.4%), eighth in scoring (85.0) and 14th in assists (17.7).
Gonzaga leads the nation in 2-point shooting accuracy (63%). Chet Holmgren leads the way at 77%, followed by Nolan Hickman (69%), Drew Timme (65.2%), Anton Watson (64.9%) and Julian Strawther (61.5%).
The Zags have been highly productive, particularly when they take care of the ball.
“We’ve been focusing on it in practice,” Watson said after the NAU game. “It just makes the game easier for the offense and it kind of slows down (opponents’) transition offense, too.”
North Alabama, No. 239 in the NET rankings and No. 287 in KenPom, is Gonzaga’s fifth opponent transitioning to D-I. The Lions advanced to the ASUN Conference tournament title game last season before falling to Liberty 79-75.
The Lions were picked ninth by the coaches and 10th by the media in the ASUN preseason poll. Gonzaga thumped Bellarmine, picked fourth in the ASUN, by 42 points on Dec. 19.
North Alabama was blown out by No. 10 NET Auburn 70-44 and No. 41 Mississippi State 75-49 but hung close with No. 51 Iona (81-65) and No. 53 Central Florida (75-64).
North Alabama will be undersized, particularly against the 7-foot Holmgren and 6-10, 235-pound Timme in GU’s frontcourt. The Lions’ 6-1 Jamari Blackmon, 5-9 C.J. Brim, 6-6 Isaac Chatman and 6-10 Damian Forrest have started all 12 games. Payton Youngblood, a 6-5 wing, has made nine starts and 6-3 Detalian Brown has three starts.
The Lions score by committee with reserve guard Daniel Ortiz the lone player in double figures at 10.6. Eleven players average at least 10 minutes and nine contribute at least 5.0 points per outing.
Gonzaga routed North Alabama 96-51 three years ago in Spokane.