1:40 p.m. Friday in San Diego(TNT)
Gonzaga vs. Oklahoma State
The story line: A year after entering the tournament as a No. 1 seed, Gonzaga comes in this time as a No. 8, and a slight underdog to the Cowboys. Oklahoma State, widely seen as a team that could make a significant NCAA run, caught fire toward the end of the season after enduring a seven-game losing streak marked by the three-game suspension of guard Marcus Smart for shoving a fan.
Styles: The Cowboys like to play at a fast clip, averaging 80.3 points. Gonzaga is a hybrid offense, eager to push the pace but also capable of finding good shots in an attack with multiple sets. Defensively, both teams go predominantly man-to-man, but each has been known to turn to zone — Oklahoma State to counter foul trouble and depth problems, Gonzaga to offset athletically superior teams.
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The perimeter: Both teams favor three-guard offenses. Oklahoma State is sparked by Smart, projected to be the No. 1 backcourt player taken in the 2014 NBA draft, but he gets major help from Markel Brown and Phil Forte. For the Zags, David Stockton is a deft passer at the point, taking pressure off scorer Kevin Pangos and versatile Gary Bell Jr. But Pangos has been limited by a persistent case of turf toe and isn’t the threat he was early in the season. Edge: Oklahoma State.
The big men: Oklahoma State’s longterm outlook was dimmed when forward Michael Cobbins went down late in December with a torn Achilles tendon, leaving the Cowboys short up front. Their big threat there is Le’Bryan Nash, a crafty, righty player with a good left hand. Gonzaga’s leading inside cog is Sam Dower Jr., a natural scorer who can drift outside and hit shots, but 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski can change games with improving moves around the hoop and his defensive presence. Edge: Gonzaga.
Coaching: The Cowboys’ Travis Ford isn’t considered an especially sharp bench coach; this OSU team is 4-10 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime. And he’s come up short three times in a row against Gonzaga’s Mark Few as Oklahoma State coach, and once before when he was at Massachusetts. Few has been very good in NCAA openers; it’s the later games where the Zags have faltered. Edge: Gonzaga.
When they’re struggling: The Cowboys went through a spell early in the season when Smart, an excellent passer, dominated the offense by shooting the ball, with mixed results. He needs to be a facilitator first. Gonzaga can struggle with athletes attacking off the dribble, and it’s had a history of surrendering big perimeter shooting games when bowing out of the tournament.
Even as conventional wisdom is projecting Oklahoma State to advance, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Gonzaga prevail. But Smart has functioned well since his suspension, and the Cowboys’ athleticism might be more than Gonzaga can handle.
Prediction: Oklahoma St. 73, Gonzaga 67