The way Gonzaga has been revered come March - deservedly so - makes it easy to forget that the Bulldogs are actually the lower seed in the opening NCAA Tournament game in 2011. The Zags, owner of the Southeast Region's 11-seed will square off with a resurgent St. John's team that is back in the Dance for the first time since 2002 and riding high after a fantastic regular season under first-year head coach Steve Lavin.
This game is very, very even on paper with both schools holding decided advantages in different regards, but the Bulldogs may carry a slight edge given their postseason experience as compared to the upstart Johnnies. There is potential for this contest to go down as the best one of the day if both programs are hitting on all cylinders when they get underway with a late tip-off out in Denver.
Follow along after the jump for a full breakdown of both teams as they prepare for their opening games of the NCAA Tournament.
St. John's Red Storm, 6-seed Southeast Region
There's something comforting about St. John's being relevant in college basketball again, it just feels right having a New York City team making noise. The Red Storm made serious waves during the regular season, winning 21 games, defeating six ranked teams and finishing the regular season ranked #18 in the country. Steve Lavin has revived the program and now leads them into the NCAA Tournament, a place where he has the highest winning percentage among active coaches in the round of 64 and 32 combined, having gone 10-1 in his career. Still, Lavin's bunch will have to deal with the monumental loss of team leader and top rebounder D.J. Kennedy who suffered a torn ACL in the Big East Tournament.
The Johnnie are a tough, smart, athletic team and it's reflected in the way they get their points, getting to the line often, utilizing pick and roll and iso sets effectively and running in transition. It's important to note that despite their improved guard play this season, this is not a good spot-up team at all. The Red Storm collectively shoot just 33% from beyond the arc and in all spot-up scenarios (including when they put the ball on the floor and drive) they rank in the bottom one-fourth nationally in scoring efficiency, with only Dwight Hardy and Paris Horne proving to be better than average here. These players are much better when they can isolate and utilize their athleticism against less physically gifted defenders, with Hardy and Justin Brownlee both excelling in this set-up which is a good since for St. John's since these two make up more than 50% of the team's iso usage rate.
This is an undersized team that does not post often at all, at least when looking for scoring opportunities. In half court sets post-up possessions have accounted for just 6% of the team's total offense according to Synergy Sports Technology. Yet nearly 50% of the team's shots have come around the basket in other scenarios, primarily attacking off the dribble right to the rim. This team looks to attack, attack, attack.
Defense is a mixed bag for St. John's, overall proving to be an above average team here, but definitely featuring some weaknesses that play up to advantages for Gonzaga. Considering their personnel, it isn't surprising they do well defending isolation sets as well as off the ball movement. With that said, they struggle defending spot-up situations (Gonzaga is an above average three-point shooting team) and aren't particularly strong at keeping opposing teams off the offensive glass - and that was with Kennedy. The Bulldogs are a good offensive rebounding team, so this could spell trouble. The Johnnies do apply pressure however and ranked 14th in the country in opponent turnover percentage despite playing quite a bit of zone.
Gonzaga Bulldogs, 11-seed Southeast Region
There were definitely points early in the season where it had to be questioned if this was the season Gonzaga would lose the magic. The Bulldogs started 4-5 and sophomore Elias Harris failed to live up to a lot of the preseason hype that surrounded him. But Mark Few's ship righted itself and the Zags enter their game tonight riding a 9-game winning streak as they prepare for their 13th straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Efficiency and balance have been the key offensive this season with Steven Gray, Robert Sacre and Harris all averaging between 12 and 14 points, while four others chip in between 5 and 8 a night. Despite not having a consistently explosive scoring option, the Zags finished with a top 50 adjusted efficiency at this end of the floor ranking as one of the better shooting teams in the country inside the arc where they connected more than 52% of the time. The bulk of the touches come in spot-up situations where the Bulldogs ranked quite high compared to other teams thanks to the play of Gray and Marquise Carter who saw the majority of touches here. Mathis Moenninghoff only sees limited minutes on the court, but when he does play has proven to be one of the best spot-up players in the country considering his minuscule usage rate.
Gonzaga has also been one of the top post-up teams in the country this season, shooting over 47% on shot attempts from the low block with Sacre and Harris providing the lift here. One other thing to consider, they don't do it very often at all (just 5% of the time) but the Zags are the second best isolation offense in the country, trailing only Ohio State for scoring efficiency in this play type. That would all be thanks to Steven Grey, who granted won't iso a tremendous amount of the time, but ranks in the 98th percentile in the country when he chooses to.
This is a strong defensive team from top to bottom, particularly inside the arc where the Bulldogs have proven to be one of the best programs in the country when it comes to defending two-point field goals - certainly a factor that will help against a poor perimeter shooting team like St. John's. They also do a solid job of limiting second chance scoring opportunities and led the WCC in turnovers forced. The one area that could be a bit of an achilles heel if the game turned this way is the fact that Gonzaga has a mediocre transition defense and the Red Storm likes to run the break when it can. Controlling the tempo and keeping this to a half court slug fest definitely favors the Bulldogs.