Arkansas faces a herculean task in its quest to reach a second consecutive Elite Eight when the Razorbacks take on overall No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 on Thursday.
The 4-seed Razorbacks (27-8) paired one of their best defensive performances of the season with a nightmarish offensive outing in a 53-48 victory over 12-seed New Mexico State in the second round. Arkansas shot just 27.5 percent from the field against the Aggies — including 19 percent from 3-point range — and totaled 14 baskets. Getting to the free-throw line made the difference for the Razorbacks. Arkansas averages 23 free throw attempts per game and went 22-of-25 from the line against New Mexico State.
Holding the Bulldogs' powerful offense in check is easier said than done. Gonzaga (28-3) outlasted 9-seed Memphis 82-78 in the second round thanks to another strong second-half performance. In two NCAA Tournament games so far, the Zags have totaled 109 second-half points. Drew Timme has been the catalyst for those surges after halftime, scoring 43 of his 57 points in the two wins after halftime.
Gonzaga won the only previous game between the two schools, beating Arkansas 91-81 in the fifth-place game of the 2013 Maui Invitational.
West Region: No. 4 Arkansas Razorbacks (27-8) vs. No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (28-3)
Time: Thursday, March 24 at 7:09 p.m. ET
Where: Chase Center (San Francisco)
Spread: Gonzaga -9.5
Keys for Arkansas
Winning the backcourt battle is crucial for the Razorbacks. Andrew Nembhard is a wizard at orchestrating Gonzaga's offense. Nembhard averages 5.8 assists per game and is a big reason why the Zags make 33 field goals per contest. Arkansas' JD Notae is a proficient scorer and strong defender. But he struggled with consistency against Vermont and New Mexico State, going just 10-of-34 from the field over the two games. If Notae can get in an early rhythm, that could give Arkansas the edge it needs. Notae can create his own shot as well as for teammates. The Razorbacks rise and fall with him.
Arkansas needs to get to the free-throw line and also put Gonzaga on the line. The Razorbacks survived an upset bid by the Aggies because they made an effort to get to the line when the shots weren't falling and made 88 percent of their free throws. On the other end, Gonzaga has struggled with knocking down foul shots during the NCAA Tournament. The Zags are shooting just 54 percent from the charity stripe over their last two games. If the Razorbacks stay within a couple of possessions, those free-throw woes could put them over the top in the final minutes.
Keys for Gonzaga
Starting slow has been a persistent problem for the Zags. Gonzaga can't afford another sluggish first half against Arkansas. The Bulldogs need to get out and push the tempo early. The Razorbacks like to run as well, but Gonzaga is one of the best in the nation in transition offense. Opponents are quickly overwhelmed when the Bulldogs can combine their size advantage in the post with quick, efficient decision-making from their guards. Gonzaga leads the nation in scoring (87.8 points per game) and 2-point field goal percentage (61.0) precisely because it does not give a defense time to set up on a majority of possessions.
Both Timme and Chet Holmgren need to be actively involved on both ends of the court. Holmgren had limited impact against Memphis compared to his usual standards after dealing with foul trouble. The 7-foot center has struggled from the perimeter over the past month, but he's still a deadly outside shooter for a big man and a tenacious rebounder. Timme, Gonzaga's leading scorer, is dominant on the block and excellent in back-to-the-basket situations. His ability to pump fake so well repeatedly burns defenders.
Gonzaga leads the nation in offensive efficiency and ranks in the top 10 in defensive efficiency. The Bulldogs face a true challenge with Arkansas because the Razorbacks are a strong defensive squad that also is capable of scoring in bunches. Still, it isn't likely Gonzaga will sleepwalk through the first half for a third straight game and the Bulldogs have a knack for overwhelming opponents after halftime. Arkansas showed too much inconsistency against Vermont and New Mexico State to suddenly put it all together for 40 minutes against the No. 1-ranked team in the nation. The SEC's stay in March Madness will come to an end Thursday night.
Prediction: Gonzaga 81, Arkansas 69
– Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sports journalist based in Utah. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.