Undefeated Bulldogs hope to avoid upset bug against the Sooners to advance to the Sweet 16
The madness in March heats up in the Round of 32 with overall top seed Gonzaga taking the court against No. 8 seed Oklahoma in West Region play on Monday. The Bulldogs cruised to their 27th win of the season, downing Norfolk State 98-55 on Saturday, but may not get as easy of a go facing an Oklahoma squad that has already squared off against 12 top-25 teams this season. The Sooners dropped No. 9 seed Missouri 72-68 in their NCAA Tournament opener and now seek to give Gonzaga their one-way ticket back to Spokane.
Oklahoma went eight deep on their roster against Missouri but relied heavily on Austin Reaves, Brady Manek, and Elijah Harkless in the victory. Reaves produced a game-high 23 points, arguably winning the game from the free-throw line by converting 10-of-12 opportunities. Manek was able to open up the paint for the Sooners' slashers drawing out Missouri center Jeremiah Tilmon with his 3-point shooting (finished 5-for-9).
Avoiding the historic 16-over-1 upset, Gonzaga took the court with something to prove, putting Norfolk State in a 20-point deficit by halftime. Even though he was limited to 27 minutes, forward Corey Kispert looked the part of the West Coast Conference Player of the Year hitting 8-of-12 shots for 23 points. Head coach Mark Few unloaded his bench playing 15 Bulldogs. But even in the blowout win, the 11 turnovers produced had to be troubling for Few.
West Region: No. 8 Oklahoma (16-10) vs. No. 1 Gonzaga (27-0)
Time: Monday, March 22, at 2:40 p.m. ET
Where: Hinkle Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Spread: Gonzaga -14.5
Keys for Oklahoma
If Corey Kispert is going to get his points (averages 19.3 per game), can Oklahoma keep 6-foot-10 power forward Drew Timme and freshman guard Jalen Suggs down? The in-game matchup between Sooners guard Elijah Harkless and Suggs will be fun to watch. Double that for Brady Manek tying up Timme and trying to draw him out to the 3-point line. If Manek gets into foul trouble, Kur Kuath is a solid backup with identical size, but he does not have the weight to bang with Timme for very long.
Austin Reaves continued to be the straw that stirs Oklahoma's offense using his quickness to get into the paint for high-percentage shots while drawing fouls on Mizzou. As a team, the Sooners were 19-for-24 from the charity stripe, taking advantage of those opportunities against the Tigers. Shooting 34 percent from behind the arc on the year, OU passed up on 3-pointers and instead took it to Missouri in the paint. Reaves will have to continue pushing his agenda around the basket and the Tigers will have to sink their free throws to have a chance at pulling off the big upset.
Keys for Gonzaga
Will Mark Few put Corey Kispert on Austin Reaves or opt for Jalen Suggs? If Reaves takes Kispert at the other end, which high-profile player will get the calls from the refs? The offensive tempo could put one star on the bench early, changing the complexion of the first half. With Kispert's smooth stroke, especially from behind the arc, getting him loose early will put the heat on Oklahoma to change up its defense.
If the two teams play straight up, the Sooners may be deeper and more experienced in this type of game. Oklahoma doesn't dominate on the glass but is sneaky in creating turnovers and capitalizing on the other team's mistakes. Lining up athlete to athlete, Gonzaga hasn't been tested since mid-December when the Bulldogs faced Iowa and then later Virginia. If they cannot put OU down double digits early, will the Bulldogs get frustrated leading to unforced mistakes?
The same question arises every year for Gonzaga, does the regular-season conference schedule hurt the Bulldogs come NCAA Tournament time? They got four big early-season wins against ranked teams in Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa, and Virginia but have had an easy trek to the Big Dance over the last two-and-a-half months.
The Sooners have taken 10 losses on the season, but only two were blowouts. OU typically plays even with its competition. How the refs call this one could put another No. 1 seed on the sidelines early.
Prediction: Gonzaga 82, Oklahoma 76
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.