The All-American big men may be the ones luring viewers to their television sets, but it’s conceivable the hero of Sunday’s Gonzaga-Kentucky game at the Arena will be someone not named Drew Timme or Oscar Tshiebwe.
As the 2022-23 Bulldogs have learned through three games, there’s probably a baseline level of play Timme needs to meet for Gonzaga to hang with the best teams on its schedule. Timme exceeded that level, especially in the second half, of a 64-63 win over Michigan State, and was solid but not exceptional in a 93-74 loss to Texas in which the senior scored 18 points, grabbed nine rebounds and committed five turnovers.
Much like Timme for the Zags, Tshiebwe seldom wavers for the Wildcats. The Congo native recently had his 17th consecutive double-double – 22 points, 18 boards – in an overtime loss to Michigan State. It’ll take a focused, diligent effort from Gonzaga’s frontcourt to keep Tshiebwe off the glass.
If it comes down to guard play, Gonzaga’s backcourt will need to improve in a number of facets and may be shorthanded if starting point guard Nolan Hickman – a one-time Kentucky signee – is unavailable for the Bulldogs after suffering an ankle injury in the second half of the Texas game.
Gonzaga’s guards have been turnover-prone early in the season, with Hickman, Rasir Bolton, Malachi Smith, Julian Strawther and Hunter Sallis combining for 23 assists and 26 turnovers. The Bulldogs’ backcourt will need to apply more defensive pressure on Sunday after conceding 42 points and nine 3-pointers to Texas guards Tyrese Hunter and Marcus Carr.
Kentucky has creators, distributors and shooters in its starting backcourt, which features two transfers – Sahvir Wheeler (Georgia) and CJ Fredrick (Iowa) – along with freshman Cason Wallace, the fifth-rated recruit in the country. Wheeler and Wallace are equally capable at point guard, combining for 50 assists through four games. By comparison, Gonzaga has 40 team assists through three games.
Fredrick and senior Antonio Reeves will almost certainly make the Zags pay if they fail to close out on 3-point shots. Those two have opened the season 24 of 53 (45%) from beyond the arc.
While he was at Iowa, Fredrick scored eight points in a 99-88 loss to No. 1 Gonzaga in a neutral-site game on Dec. 19, 2020.
“They just spread the floor, they move well, they’ve got guys that can knock down shots and obviously Drew Timme poses a problem.” Fredrick said earlier this week. “So it’s going to take a collective unit to stop a team like that.”
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