Setting: Beale Street will be boppin’ tonight as the Sweet Sixteen comes to Memphis. Mark Few brings his No. 4 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs (28-5) to town for a lip-smackin’ tilt with Roy Williams and the No. 1 seed North Carolina Tar Heels (30-4).
Make my pre-game meal barbecued chicken. Oops! Scratch that. It’s Lent. I’ll wait until midnight for the meat.
Plot: Gonzaga is making its 11th consecutive tournament appearance and 12th overall. This is the fifth time the Bulldogs have barked their way to the Sweet Sixteen. In getting here, the 'Zags beat Akron (77-64) and Western Kentucky (83-81).
On the other hand, UNC is making its 41st tournament appearance and a NCAA record 23rd straight trip to the Regional Semi-Finals. The Tar Heels have won eight consecutive third-round match ups. Their last loss came to Ohio State in 1992. UNC has advanced to the Elite Eight 23 times. Carolina opened the tournament with a 101-58 shellacking of Radford and then topped LSU, 84-70.
Flashback: Tonight’s game marks the first meeting between the schools in the Dance and second overall. Gonzaga beat UNC in the 2006 NIT Preseason tourney 82-74. The Zags limited then-sophomore Tyler Hansbrough to five shots from the perimeter and nine points with nine rebounds. Hansbrough has only been held to single-figure point totals eight of his 138 career games. Gonzaga shot 51 percent from the field that night.
Characters: Gonzaga will start:
Jeremy Pargo 6-2(10.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 5.0 assists, 1.4 steals)
Matt Bouldin 6-5(13.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.5 assists, 1.6 steals)
Micah Downs 6-8 (9.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.1 assists)
Josh Heytvelt 6-11 (14.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg) Austin Daye 6-11 (12.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.1 assists)
North Carolina will counter with:
Ty Lawson 5-11 (16.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 6.5 assists, 2.0 steals)
Wayne Ellington 6-4 (15.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.7 assists, 1.1 steals)
Tyler Hansbrough, 6-9 (21.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 0.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks)
Danny Green, 6-6 (13.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.7 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.3 blocks)
Deon Thompson 6-8 (10.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 0.7 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.1 blocks)
On paper, Gonzaga matches up with the 'Heels. Outside their conference schedule, where they went undefeated, the Bulldogs played an ambitious ledger, including the likes of UConn, Maryland, Tennessee, Arizona, and Oklahoma State, all of which made the tournament and two of which are still there.
Daye can hang with Thompson, as can Heytvelt with Hansbrough. Bouldin should keep Ellington in check. Can Downs hang with Green?
Gonzaga’s depth might surprise a few people. Steven Gray, Demetri Goodson, and Ira Brown are capable of making significant contributions with limited minutes.
Then there’s Bobby Frasor. Will the Tar Heel senior have another night where he takes over a game for a couple of minutes?
Climax: Pargo vs. Lawson. Pargo packs as much athleticism with basketball as does Lawson. If anyone can slow down Lawson, it is Pargo at his best.
Which Jeremy Pargo will show up? The one that committed four turnovers and had zero assists in the first half at Knoxville? Or the Jeremy Pargo that came out in the second half of that non-conference battle and had six assists, four rebounds, a steal, and six points to lead Gonzaga to a come-from-behind road win.
Pargo possesses the goods to get the job done. Can he play within himself?
What will the 'Zags do? They make just under 40 percent of their shots from behind the arc. Usually, that is a key ingredient to their success. But will they get open on the arc? Carolina was susceptible early in the season on the perimeter. Have they learned their lesson?
When UNC is at its best, there is no team in the country that can hang with them, one reason why they are many's favorite to win the tournament. Gonzaga cannot hope to win a track meet against the Tar Heels. If they slow down the pace, they may be able to get open looks late in the shot clock. And, if Gonzaga can control the ball and make UNC play defense, that could affect the Heels' offense.
It will be a very good game.