Only one game into the season, the Rams basketball team will get a good stress test against the 14/15 ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs. If not for Florida Gulf Coast's "Dunk City" performance in the NCAA tournament last season, Gonzaga may have been the biggest story in the first weekend of March Madness. The Bulldogs earned a controversial number one seed after a 31-2 regular season. Some believed their record was a product of an easy schedule, while others said a 30-win season is still an impressive accomplishment and more than deserving of a one seed. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they ran into the freight train commonly known as Wichita State. The Bulldogs lost to the eventual Final Four squad 76-70 and entered the offseason with a lot of 'what-ifs'.
The 'Zags lost star player Kelly Olynyk to the NBA Draft and Elias Harris to graduation. The two accounted for 42% of Gonzaga's scoring and 40% of their rebounding. Olynyk was a dynamic player who could score in the paint or step out and shoot it. The Bulldogs won't have an easy time replacing his production.
Fortunately for them, the Rams lost even more of their production from last season. With the departure of the Rams' exceptional senior class, they lost 82% of their scoring and 71% of their rebounding. Center Colton Iverson was drafted by the Boston Celtics along with Olynyk, but left a much larger hole when he departed. Iverson was a double-double machine and played a huge role in both the offensive and defensive success of last year's Colorado State team.
Both schools lost important pieces over the offseason, but returning players are ready to step up and take the reins on this season's teams. Tonight's game will put them to the test and see just how capable they are of living up to the success last year's teams built.
Keys to the Game
The Bulldogs may have lost Kelly Olynyk, but Sam Dower is doing his best impersonation. In the season opener against Bryant University, Dower had 21 points and 17 rebounds to lead Gonzaga in both categories. Dower is a big body at 6'9" and 255 pounds and is quick in the paint. He has a reliable hook shot and can also stroke it from range. Aside Dower in the paint is sophomore Przemek Karnowski. At 7 feet, Karnowski will be far and away the biggest player on the court tonight. His offensive game still needs a lot of polish, but he is effective at passing out of the block and rebounding.
The Rams have struggled at times on defense as a new crop of players learn to play together. The main big men JJ Avila, Marcus Holt, and Gerson Santo have shown they can hold their own in the paint, but they have yet to face a test like Dower and Karnowski will present. If Gonzaga can get the ball into the paint and force double teams, it will allow their explosive backcourt to get open looks and utilize their athleticism against the Rams' stingy defenders.
Keys to the Upset
Unlike their exhibition game against Regis, the Rams shot well against UCCS and looked comfortable shooting the ball anywhere on the court. They shot 60% from the field in that game and 38% behind the arc. With so many young players trying to find their confidence and shooting stroke early in the season, it would be dangerous to come out of the gate cold. Gonzaga students have been camping outside McCarthey Athletic Center for the matchup tonight, and will provide a very tough environment for the Rams to play in. The Rams played some tough venues last season in the Mountain West, but it will be the first time most of these players have played a major road game. If they can start the game off shooting well, it will help take the crowd out of the game and give the younger players much needed confidence.
But most importantly, the Rams need to show they can play defense like last year's squad. They performed fairly well in the season opener, but had lapses at times that led to frustratingly easy buckets. If they do that against Gonzaga, they will find themselves in a hole quickly.
Prediction: Gonzaga 82 Colorado State 74
Perhaps if this game were later in the season Colorado State could pull off the upset, but they simply need more time to get used to playing with each other. The Rams have a better chance than many people are giving them, and should make it an entertaining game, but their vulnerability on defense will ultimately let them down.