Pepperdine Waves (7-4, 0-0) at Gonzaga Bulldogs (8-3, 0-0)
Where: McCarthey Athletic Center, Spokane, Wash.
When: Monday, December 21 at 6 p.m. Pacific
Gonzaga came into the season not just as the heavy favorites in the WCC but also a team with legitimate Final Four aspirations. A rocky road in the non-conference saw the Zags drop three games, two of which came at home, and fall entirely out of the top-25.
Now they have to face a Pepperdine team which knows this is their best shot at an NCAA Tournament berth in over a decade.
Scouting the Waves
Marty Wilson's Waves are a defensive-minded group riding a five game winning streak into Spokane. Their guards, Jeremy Major and Amadi Udenyi, can't be faulted if they're looking forward to tonight's challenge of Gonzaga's shaky backcourt.
Pepperdine holds opponents to a paltry 28.2% from three point range this season, and that's no fluke as the Waves ranked third nationally in three point percentage defense last season per KenPom. They force turnovers on over one fifth of possessions with half of those coming as steals. Both of those defensive stats bode well for the Waves tonight in Spokane, as Gonzaga's guards are poor three point shooters with a tendency to turn the ball over.
Stacy Davis (14.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg) is the face of the Waves. The senior forward was WCC Newcomer of the Year as a freshman and two-time all-conference selection. He's posted three straight triple doubles coming into tonight. He's a power forward at just 6-foot-6, which will be advantageous against Gonzaga's giant frontcourt on offense (especially if he gets matched up with the lazy defending Kyle Wiltjer), but will be a disadvantage defensively.
Surrounding Davis are stretch-four Jett Raines and powerful 6-foot-5 junior Lamond Murray Jr.
Scouting the Zags
While the Zags are trying to pick up a 30th consecutive win over the Waves they'll also be in their seventh consecutive game without senior center Przemek Karnowski, who is out with a back injury.
In Karnowski's absence Domantas Sabonis has been moved into the starting line-up —a monster week earned him WCC Player of the Week honors for the second time this season— and Kyle Wiltjer has seen extended minutes. Both have stepped up production without seeing a decrease in efficiency. With Pepperdine's stingy perimeter defense, coupled with bad perimeter play from Gonzaga's guard corps, those two will be asked once again to carry their team to victory.
Outside of those two all-conference caliber players are a whole bunch of question marks. Josh Perkins and Eric McClellan have started all 11 games this season, but the third guard to start has yet to be determined. Bryan Alberts, who played very limited minutes early in the season, has started the past two games. Silas Melson started the game before, and it was senior Kyle Dranginis in that role before him.
Of those five only the freshman Alberts has an offensive rating over 100 —keep in mind that this program has a history of exceptional guard play— and that could well be due to his relatively small sample size.
Keys to the game
For the Zags it's ball control. Gonzaga's guards seemed to have turned a corner in this department against Tennessee, so much so that the only first half turnover came on a Ryan Edwards offensive foul. But the Volunteers don't play defense like Pepperdine does. If the bad habits return an upset will be very likely.
For the Waves it's setting the tone. This is a veteran team that returned every single important part from last season. And last year they swept BYU and very nearly beat a far better Gonzaga team in Malibu. Marty Wilson and company need to keep their team from getting rattled in the Kennel. If they come out and play their game, defend well and attack Gonzaga's bigs they can pick up season defining win on national television.