Yesterday’s game between the Baylor Bears and the Gonzaga Bulldogs pitted the #9 team in the country (Baylor) against a Gonzaga team that has struggled to match the competition early in the season as they work their way through one of the more challenging pre-conference schedules you’ll see. Having lost to San Diego State (now a top-10 ranked team), Kansas State, Illinois, Washington State and Notre Dame already, the Bulldogs could only boast a 5-5 record coming into Saturday, and their best win was against unranked Marquette. In contrast, Baylor was rolling along in an undefeated season after their first seven games, although none of their prior opponents appeared in the top 25, and only one (Arizona State) even came from a major conference.
With this context, both teams had something to prove. For Gonzaga’s part, they needed to show that they could prevail in a significant matchup and help their flailing tournament resume with a quality win. With Xavier, Oklahoma State, and Wake Forest all to come on their pre-conference schedule, Gonzaga was in dire need of a reversal of fortune before things got out of hand. On Baylor’s side, the perspective was that they needed to prove their legitimacy as a top team in the country rather than continuing to ride on the success of last season’s Elite 8 squad.
The game turned out to be a back-and-forth affair for the entire 40 minutes, with Gonzaga eventually pulling out the win despite playing without leading scorer Steven Gray for the majority of the game after Gray took a bad fall to the floor. A three-pointer by Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk near the end of the game helped the Bulldogs close out the Bears and finish on the winning side of a 68-64 score. Seven-foot center Robert Sacre led Gonzaga with 17 points while Perry Jones and LaceDarius Dunn had 19 and 17 for the Bears, respectively.
Neither of these teams leaves an extremely strong impression like a Duke or Syracuse team leaves. They come across as simply good teams, but not teams you would feel especially nervous running into down the line. Baylor’s players have great athleticism, but seem to lack discipline at times in their shot selection. Dunn is a big-time scorer, but it takes more than a one-man show to win big games. Point guard A.J. Walton drives the team, but he too has a score-first mentality that may work to the detriment of the Bears. It is rather revealing that Baylor only had five assists for the entire game, and Walton, the point guard, contributed no assists but five turnovers. Last season’s floor general, Tweety Carter, was a presence that is now sorely missed. Dunn, who scored nearly 20 points per game last season, will likely light it up in a number of games this year and give Baylor their best shot at a tournament run, but if he is neutralized then it is unclear if Baylor has any other options.
Gonzaga does not have the same athleticism as Baylor, but they are a more focused team with better offensive execution. The Baylor defense was rather porous, allowing the Bulldogs to repeatedly feed passes directly into the paint for close buckets. Sacre is a quality big man who is comfortable turning to face the basket. He passes well and plays an intelligent style, almost in the same vein as a player like Carlos Boozer from Duke in the early part of the decade. Gonzaga may have made more of an impression if Gray had been available for the whole game, but overall I think that playing without Gray may have been beneficial for the Bulldogs in the long run. To some extent Gonzaga is also continuing to ride the wave started by their 1997-1998 team that shocked many by making it to the Elite 8 with a series of notable upsets. That year’s team and several subsequent teams had a very cohesive style of play. More recently, with the recognition gained through tournament success, Gonzaga has been able to pick up high-profile players such as Adam Morrison. However, these teams with a featured star have never matched the success of those late-90′s teams.
In terms of how these teams might match up against the Buckeyes, I think that defense would be the largest difference. Neither Gonzaga nor Baylor is a team that will lock you down on defense, while Ohio State does have a few “stoppers” on the team this year and plays very well as a total unit. I would look for Gonzaga to have more success over the course of this season than Baylor if they learn from their matchup with the Bears and experience a return to strong all-around team play instead of relying on Gray to carry them.
One last item of note for Gonzaga bodes well for their future. The team always seems to have 2-3 white guys with floppy hair year-to-year, but this year they’ve welcomed a freshman to the team who may introduce a new image. The player is a point guard who brings a bit more clean-cut approach, similar to the style of his father. The player’s name is David Stockton, and his father’s name is John.