A pair of schools with tortured NCAA Tournament histories meets up in Salt Lake City hoping that Cinderella has a few more dances left with them.
Northwestern enters the Second Round for the first time ever after surviving a thriller against Vanderbilt in their initial appearance on the sport’s grandest stage. While the ending of that was dicey, it nevertheless was one of the best moments in program history and has the veteran group of playmakers hungry for more in this strange experience that is the NCAA Tournament.
Gonzaga knows that feeling from many moons ago but is hoping the best team in school history does not see their run come to an early end. The Bulldogs looked a little sluggish in the first half of their opener but turned things on to cruise to an easy victory over South Dakota State. Few squads are as deep as the crew Mark Few brings to town and any number of players could step up to be the difference-maker once again as the program chases after that elusive Final Four berth.
The storylines don’t get much better than this on either side of the court and Saturday’s matchup will hopefully live up to the lofty expectations fans on both sides have for it.
West Region: No. 8 Northwestern (24-11) vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (33-1)
When: 5:15 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: Vivint Smart Home Arena (Salt Lake City)
Line: Gonzaga -10.5
Keys for Northwestern
Despite some crisp passing and quality shooting, the Wildcats never did take over against Vanderbilt and needed some help at the end despite dominating statistically. That doesn’t exactly bode well going forward but this team has won close all year and that probably won’t stop on Saturday. Northwestern will be at a big disadvantage in the paint so cleaning up on the boards as best these Wildcats can and knocking down their three-point shots is a must given the unfamiliar situation the team finds itself in.
Keys for Gonzaga
The Bulldogs are so balanced and deep that there’s a reason they nearly came into the Tournament with a perfect record. Despite pulling away in the second half, they were slow to get going in their opener and it looked as though their struggles in the state of Utah were popping up again. The guards started to show up as the game progressed for the Bulldogs but the key to a long run is better play from center Przemek Karnowski. The interior game has to be a bigger part of Gonzaga’s game plan on Saturday, especially against an undersized opponent.
Salt Lake City has been painted purple this week as masses of Northwestern fans have made the pilgrimage to see the Wildcats’ first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. For all the attention being paid to the media darling though, this was one of the few Big Ten teams to show up in the first round and the team is simply playing with house money at this point. If the shots are falling, an upset is not out of the question. However, Gonzaga is simply too talented, especially down low, to see another early exit from the Big Dance and the Bulldogs will be looking ahead toward the next step in their magical run.
Prediction: Gonzaga 74, Northwestern 61
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.