One of the most anticipated home games in Gonzaga men’s basketball history is here — or at least it will be in six days. No. 6 GU (10-1) welcomes No. 17 North Carolina (6-3) to Spokane for a battle between top-20 team on Dec. 18 at 6 p.m.
Spokane and the GU student body will see a matchup between two powerhouse college basketball programs, with UNC making its first appearance inside The Kennel in program history.
This is one of the most accomplished programs to roll through Spokane. The Tar Heels are six-time national champions and serve as one of GU’s toughest opponents this season. Wednesday will wrap up a challenging three-game stretch for the Zags after defeating then-No. 22 Washington in Seattle on Dec. 8 and facing No. 14 Arizona in Tuscon, Arizona, on Saturday.
The two heavyweight programs met last year in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, when UNC defeated GU 103-90. The Tar Heels shot 52% beyond the arc, with future first round NBA draft pick Cameron Johnson logging 25 points in 31 minutes. Zach Norvell Jr. contributed 21 points in the matchup but UNC’s torrid shooting was too much to overcome.
This year, there are new factors and players for which to account. Cole Anthony, the No. 2 recruit and a potential top-five pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, is UNC’s main source of offense, averaging 20 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists. The Zags counter with depth in the front-court and junior wing Corey Kispert, who is shooting 49% from the field and 43.1% from 3 through 11 games.
It’s important that the Zags win the rebound battle and keep their turnover numbers low. GU’s crop of big men, freshman Drew Timme, freshman Anton Watson, sophomore Filip Petrusev and senior Killian Tillie will be essential to the Zags winning this game. They’re tasked with controlling the glass and finishing off plays inside.
Redshirt sophomore Joel Ayayi serves as another key. The 6-foot-5-inch guard could be tasked with defending Anthony, so his athleticism and length will be important factors in containing the heralded freshman.
To win this game, the Bulldogs must force UNC to fire away from the perimeter. The Tar Heels are shooting 30.3% from 3-point range this season and if GU forces long rebounds on those attempts, it could spark the Zags’ transition game.
Pace of play is critical to the outcome. Evidenced by past results, when GU controls the tempo, it is a potent offensive team. If the Zags want to win Wednesday’s showdown, they must force the Tar Heels to play at the Bulldogs’ pace.
For now, all of this is speculation. Until game day arrives, the best we can do is wait and see.