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2016 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview: Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. Syracuse Orange

Red hot Gonzaga runs into the Orange of Syracuse in an improbable Sweet 16 match-up.

Gonzaga's Eric McClellan and Domantas Sabonis during the Bulldogs' 82-59 victory over Utah in the Second Round.
Gonzaga's Eric McClellan and Domantas Sabonis during the Bulldogs' 82-59 victory over Utah in the Second Round.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Gonzaga Bulldogs and Syracuse Orange might be two of college basketball's powerhouses but few expected to see them in the NCAA Tournament, much less Sweet 16.

But now the Elite Eight is guaranteed to feature one of them.

These two programs have taken very different roads to this unexpected meeting. Syracuse (21-13, 9-9 ACC) needed wins over Dayton and Middle Tennessee, two mid-majors, to get to the Sweet 16. Gonzaga (28-7, 15-3 WCC) had to take down Big East Tournament champs Seton Hall and then the Pac-12's Utah Utes before making it to the second weekend. The talent level didn't seem to matter, though, as both teams have simply laid waste to their opponents so far.

Syracuse is led by 6-foot-7 point guard Michael Gbinije (17.8 ppg, 4.4 apg). A 23 point performance against Middle Tennessee kept alive the senior's 35 game streak of double-figure scoring. That's every game this season plus one from last year. His offensive performance, then, is really never in doubt. Additionally with his exceptional length at the point guard position he makes Syracuse's patented zone defense all the more ferocious.

Gbinije and that defense will have to contain a Gonzaga offense that is posting an effective field goal percentage of 57.8% over a seven game winning streak.

Gonzaga's offense runs through the post. Senior Kyle Wiltjer (20.4 ppg) and sophomore Domantas Sabonis (17.5 ppg, 11.7 rpg) comprise the nation's best starting frontcourt. The Zags have scored 53.4% of their points from the four and five spots. With Przemek Karnowski out since December 1 and reserve Ryan Edwards having played just 12 minutes this month, the lion's share of that scoring has come from Wiltjer and Sabonis.

But lately it's been senior guard Eric McClellan (10.9 ppg) who has been the spark on the offensive end.

McClellan, the WCC Defensive Player of the Year, will be asked to hold Gbinije in check on Friday. He's been shutting down star guards all season, but since a loss to Saint Mary's on senior day he's been a force on both ends of the court. Since the start of the WCC Tournament McClellan is averaging 18.4 points per game.

In fact, Gonzaga's entire backcourt has blossomed this spring. No longer a mistake prone unit, an easy scapegoat for early-season losses, the guards — McClellan along with Josh Perkins (10.2 ppg), Kyle Dranginis (6.6 ppg) and sixth man Silas Melson (6.7 ppg) — have developed into a force on the offensive end.

At the other end, they've made Gonzaga into the best remaining shooting percentage defense.

That defense will be charged with stopping more than Gbinije, though. Syracuse freshman Malachi Richardson (13.1 ppg) and senior Trevor Cooney (12.8 ppg) support Gbinije on the perimeter. Defensively the 6-foot-6 Richardson and 6-foot-4 Cooney add length to an already long Orange zone.

Syracuse and Gonzaga last met in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. The top seeded Orange defeated the eight-seed Bulldogs 87-65 in the Second Round. That was a game that played out pretty much as expected. Friday's game won't be the same, if only because it simply happening wasn't expected.