Gonzaga and Xavier have reached this point before. "Zags" became a household word in 1999 when Gonzaga made its Cinderella run to the Elite Eight. The Jesuit school in Spokane, Washington, has not missed an NCAA Tournament since, and the Bulldogs returned to the doorstep of the Final Four again in 2015. The Tournament's semifinal round is the big prize still eluding this program that has established itself as a national power over the last 18 years.
Xavier went on its own surprise Elite Eight run in 2004, then again in ‘08. As oftentimes happens with overachieving mid-major programs, however, XU lost its head coaches to more established school in a power conference. First, Thad Matta went to Ohio State, then Sean Miller landed at Arizona. But in replacing former colleague Miller – who he beat Thursday to advance to the Elite Eight – Chris Mack took the next big step in cementing Xavier as a power program.
The Musketeers have been making strides to that end for some time, landing in the top-tier Big East Conference in 2013. The 2015-16 season was to be Xavier's shot at a Final Four, but the No. 2 seed lost a heartbreaker to Wisconsin in the Round of 32. Fast-forward a year, and after barely making the Field of 68, the Musketeers are one win away from becoming just the fourth No. 11 seed to advance to the Final Four in Tournament history.
Two of college basketball's most consistent programs of the last few decades now face off in the West Region final. Only one can reach its first-ever Final Four.
West Region: No. 11 Xavier Musketeers (24-13) vs. No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (35-1)
When: 6:09 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Where: SAP Center (San Jose, Calif.)
Line: Gonzaga -8
Keys for Xavier
Xavier's a team that came into 2016-17 with top-10 credentials, and the Musketeers are playing up to that level now. What's made them so successful amid this Tournament run is they've played loose and confident. Since that six-game losing streak in February, Xavier's had nothing to lose. That's the attitude and style the Musketeers must take into the Elite Eight.
Part of playing with confidence means willingly attacking an opponent with a size advantage. While Xavier has one of the overall tallest teams in college basketball, the Musketeers aren't especially big in the post. Gonzaga – with Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins and Johnathan Williams down low – is. But so, too, was Arizona, and Xavier flourished attacking the Wildcats in the paint.
Whether it's by feeding Sean O'Mara, who provided some crucial buckets in the Sweet 16, or Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura attacking off the dribble, the Musketeers need to attack the paint. They're much better shooting from 2-point range, averaging 52.3 percent from inside the arc on the season, than they are shooting from long range (34.9). Avoid the temptation to hoist, and continue going into the teeth of the defense with aggression and confidence.
Keys for Gonzaga
Gonzaga's proven it has the manpower to win a high-scoring affair against up-tempo teams, or a slug-fest. The latter scenario played out in a Sweet 16 win over West Virginia, as the Zags overcame the Mountaineers' intense, full-court pressure by beating them at their own game. If there's any one most underrated facet of Gonzaga's success, in fact, it's that defense.
Gonzaga is the top-ranked team in the nation in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. The Zags have length, rolling with a roster of 7-foot 1 Karnowski; 7-foot Collins; 6-foot-9 Williams; and big guards like Josh Perkins, Jordan Mathews and Silas Melson. Mark Few's lineup also is the deepest he's ever had in his illustrious career at Gonzaga.
This is a team that can frustrate an opposing offense. If it lacks the defense to match, Gonzaga has the offensive punch to go on big runs. The Zags need a substantial run to keep Xavier at bay. Build a lead of about 12 points, and Gonzaga's defense can squeeze the air out of Xavier's offense.
This is the moment for Gonzaga basketball. Mark Few has never had a more talented, nor a deeper team. This is the kind of spotlight guard Nigel Williams-Goss transferred from Washington to play in, and the Zags star should be ready for his curtain call. He'll be the offensive X-factor, while the stifling Gonzaga defense should be able to control Xavier.
Gonzaga reaches its first Final Four on the strength of physical play and control of the tempo – two things that were long sources of criticism for this program.