#4 Villanova (8-0) at #12 Gonzaga (7-1)
The Villanova Wildcats will travel to the most famous sports arena in the world, Madison Square Garden, in New York City, to play the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the annual Jimmy V Classic. This is an absolute blockbuster matchup of two programs that seem to always find themselves in the top twenty-five every year. This year is no different as the Wildcats enter this game undefeated and ranked #4 in the country, and the Zags come in at 7-1 and are ranked #12. Tipoff is scheduled for 4:00 PM PST from MSG. The current betting line is Villanova -5 points.
Villanova has benefited from a slow start to the schedule this year to run up their record to 8-0. They have a couple of decent wins, against Northern Iowa and Tennessee, but they have they yet to be truly tested this season. It wasn’t supposed to be that way though, as they were expected to play against a number two ranked Arizona team in the Battle for Atlantis tournament. Villanova held up its end of the bargain but the other Wildcats, the ones from the desert, had a terrible tournament and not only did they fail to reach the finals, they failed to win a game. It was a bit of a let down for Villanova as they were excited to get an early season test and a chance to build their resume out of conference. They will get that chance tonight.
Jay Wright’s team lost a lot of talent when they lost senior Josh Hart to the NBA after last season. A player like Hart is impossible to replace fully but the Cats have done a great job, and a big reason why is the play of Jalen Brunson. Brunson has taken over as the leader and floor general this season for Villanova. Brunson is scoring 18 points a game and is adding in 4.5 assists. That isn’t quite Josh Hart production, but it has been enough to lead the Wildcats to an undefeated record and top national ranking.
Brunson has been helped out this season by teammate Mikal Bridges. Bridges is averaging close to 18 points a game himself and leads the team in steals at over 2.5 a game. He has been a force on both sides of the court, as a go-to scorer, and a lockdown defender. The Cats will need both of them to be on their game if they are going to be able to compete with a very deep Gonzaga Bulldogs team.
Mark Few has made 18 straight NCAA tournaments. Every year we hear that this is the year the Zags will come back to earth, they just won’t be able to compete with the college basketball blue bloods. Well, I hate to break it to the haters, but Gonzaga is officially amongst the college basketball elite, every year. This season they weren’t even picked to win the West Coast Conference, Saint Mary’s was the unanimous preseason pick. That looks a little silly now, as just a couple weeks into the season the Zags are about to break into the top ten and the Gaels have struggled and fallen completely out of the top twenty-five.
The Bulldogs use a balanced attack that is led by Junior forward Johnathan Williams and center, Killian Tilly, down low. The duo comprises what is one of the best front courts in the country. Williams is going for 16 and 7 a night while Tilly is sporting a 13 and 7 line. Both big men can also stretch the floor and shoot from the perimeter, which makes them a matchup nightmare for almost every team in the country.
This Zags team has done just about everything well so far, this year. They are fourth in the country in points per game at over 92 a contest and are shooting a borderline absurd 52% from the field as a team. They are also ranked in the top thirty nationally in both rebounds and assists. This is a well-constructed team that doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses.
The one game the Zags did drop was against a very good Florida Gators team that is currently ranked 5th in the land. That game was as close as can be as it took two overtimes to settle. The only reason the Zags came up short in that one was that they eventually got in so much foul trouble with all the extra minutes, that they didn’t have any of their best players left on the court by the time it was all said and done. This team is built for a deep March run.
Like I mentioned above, this is a great matchup and what college basketball is all about. Both teams will go anywhere and play anyone, and I can’t wait to see how this one plays out. This game, to me, comes down to who is the more battle-tested squad so far, this season. Villanova has played mostly lower tiered teams this season, they haven’t been pushed yet in a game, and I wonder how this team looks with the pressure turned up, against another elite team. The Zags, on the other hand, have played a brutal schedule so far. Florida, Creighton, Texas, and Ohio State, all teams that have played Gonzaga so far, and all of them project to be NCAA tournament teams.
I think the Zags will come out and take it to the Wildcats Tuesday night. If they shoot the ball as they did in the second half against Creighton, they might just hang a hundred on Villanova. I expect this to be a fast-paced and physical game that comes down to the last possession or two. If I were pressed to make a pick for the game, I would back the Zags, but I don’t have to. I can just snatch up the points and sit back and relax and watch what should be a great college basketball game. Give me the Zags plus five points from MSG!