The Gonzaga Bulldogs are the No. 1 seed in the West region of the 2013 NCAA tournament, but they did nothing to dismiss concerns about their lackluster regular-season schedule on Thursday.
Mark Few's squad nearly made March Madness history in the worst way before escaping with a 64-58 victory over the 16th-seeded Southern University Jaguars. A Round 3 matchup with Wichita State awaits, and it promises to be just as challenging.
Although the heavy underdog Jaguars look as though they got slotted unfairly by the selection committee, it still shouldn't have been that close of a call for the Zags, who finished No. 1 in the final AP poll.
Here is what the Bulldogs need to do to avoid a shocking early exit at the hands of the Shockers on Saturday evening in Salt Lake City.
Get Kelly Olynyk involved early
Perhaps the biggest reason why Southern was able to hang around was the unassertive style that Olynyk displayed in the first 20 minutes. He eventually woke up in the second half to score 17 of his 21 points, and wound up grabbing 10 rebounds to round out a productive day overall.
Once the Zags decided to pound it inside to Olynyk, they looked like a totally different team, and the senior seven-footer actually looked like the player garnering consideration for national player of the year.
If Olynyk struggles out of the blocks again, it could result in too big of a hole for the Bulldogs to overcome.
Pittsburgh Panthers big man Steven Adams was able to have success against the Shockers in the second round, making five of his seven shots en route to 13 points and 11 rebounds. However, Adams plays a much more consistently physical style than Olynyk.
By getting Olynyk into a rhythm offensively, it will help his activity on the defensive end, which will be important against Shocker slashers Malcolm Armstead and Cleanthony Early, who gashed Pittsburgh for a combined 43 points.
Win the three-point shooting battle
The Shockers won by 18 against a strong Pittsburgh defense despite sinking just two out of 20 three-pointers.
How deep do you think Gonzaga will go in the tournament in light of Thursday's struggle?
Considering the fact that the Bulldogs defense is suspect at times, it's likely that Wichita State is going to be able to crash the paint more frequently and utilize its size and aggressiveness against the more finesse-oriented big men in Olynyk and Elias Harris.
It's also probable that the Shockers won't shoot 10 percent from deep, which makes it all the more important for the Zags' sharpshooting tandem of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, Jr. to step up.
The duo combined for seven three-pointers against the Jaguars but will face much stiffer perimeter defense from Wichita State. Pittsburgh leading scorer Tray Woodall made just one of his 12 shot attempts, including five misfires from three-point range.
The Panthers drained just one of their 17 three-point attempts, which shows how well Wichita State is able to close out and contest shots. Pangos and Bell need big games, or the Bulldogs will be in serious trouble yet again.
Avoid foul trouble
The Shockers were able to dominate Pittsburgh so thoroughly because their attacking mentality caused the Panthers to accumulate an exorbitant amount of fouls. As a result, Wichita State shot a whopping 41 free throws in the game, which accounted for 33 points.
Olynyk and Harris' high-low game is the key to what makes the high-octane Gonzaga offense function so well, as pointed out by Sports Illustrated's Kelli Anderson.
Gonzaga's frontcourt studs must avoid riding the pine early on. Otherwise, Shockers forward Carl Hall will be able to bull his way into the paint and finish near the rim with ease, while Early will also be able to get to the rim at will.
Early bricked all six of his three-pointers in the round of 64, but converted seven of his other nine shots—most of which came from close range.
Shot selection will be critical for the Shockers to pull off this massive upset, but that will largely be dictated by how long Olynyk and Harris are able to remain on the floor. As long as they can toe the line of being physical without fouling, Gonzaga is in prime shape to bounce back from a flat showing in its tournament opener.
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