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NCAA Tournament: Northwestern Wildcats vs. Gonzaga Bulldogs — Predictions, Preview and Prognostications

Dererk Pardon, Northwestern Wildcats, Nebraska Cornhuskers

When: Sat., March 16, 2017; 5:15 p.m. ET/2:15 p.m. CT
Where: Salt Lake City, Utah; Vivint Smart Home Arena (19,911)
TV: CBS
All-Time Series: First Meeting
Last Meeting: First Meeting
Line: Gonzaga (-11)

The buzz and good feeling has not quite worn off here in Salt Lake City.

Walking around downown Salt Lake City, there is still a massive amount of purple and a feeling of camraderie and optimism in the wake of the team’s stunning and nerve-wracking win over Vanderbilt on Thursday. The dream continues for the Wildcats.

And it is that, a dream. It feels like Northwestern is playing with house money. Getting to the Tournament was incredible. Winning a game was beyond comprehension.

Fans are in a state of constant joy. And they cannot wait to party again Saturday.

The team? Northwestern is likely locked away in its hotel and in its meetings focused on doing the impossible. There was a moment of celebration — by now, everyone has seen the water bottle celebrations with Chris Collins in the locker room (a common celebration after big wins for this team) — and the team soaked it all in as fans cheered them on their return to the hotel after the game.

There is still another game. And a tournament team’s mettle is tested in playing that second game.

Northwestern learned the most important Tournament lesson Thursday — survive and advance.

The team is playing with house money right now, but have their eyes sight on the doubly impossible Sweet Sixteen. It is so tantalizingly close.

But the path there is not easy. The eighth-seeded Wildcats take on the top-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs. The same Gonzaga team that has lost just one game all year in the West Coast Conference. The team with not one, but two bruising big men and solid shooters to spread the floor.

It is a tough task for the Wildcats. And Northwestern will fight not only a good team in front of them but the sense they have accomplished what they set out to do. Or maybe they have not.

Maybe the team’s belief goes deeper than even the most optimistic fans could have though. The NCAA Tournament was so unrealistic, no one though winning a game was possible in this first trip. Now that the Wildcats have won again. . . it is time to believe again.

1 Burning Question: Will Northwestern’s depth (or lack thereof) play a role?

Northwestern is not a deep team. It has been a not-so-big secret throughout the season. The Wildcats rely heavily on their starters, especially at two critical positions.

Bryant McIntosh is probably the best player on the team. After scoring 25 points in the first round win over Vanderbilt, that was made abundantly clear.

But the most nervous moments for the Wildcats came when McIntosh was out of the game, for whatever short time it was. McIntosh faced some early foul trouble and the team had to hope Isiah Brown could hold the ship steady.

There were a few moments when the Wildcats had to turn to bench units without McIntosh that were just plain shaky. It was Chris Collins trying to steal some rest for his star player.

And that will go double for Dererk Pardon. Pardon essentially matched Luke Kornett’s minutes on Thursday. He will not have that luxury with Gonzaga’s bevy of bigs — including the monstrous Przemik Karnowski and the super talented Zach Collins.

These matchups will be important, but how Northwestern steals rest for these two players and how their backups — Isiah Brown and Barrett Benson — play could decide the game.

2 Key Stats

–6: Dererk Pardon is a 54.4 percent free throw shooter. And Northwestern itself was struggling from the line throughout Thursday’s game. So when Pardon stepped to the line three times late, there were a few nerves as Vanderbilt came back. Pardon hit six straight free throws for the Wildcats to help them clinch the game. An occurrence that is statistically improbable.

–37.7: Northwestern will not face a team with flamethrower 3-point shooting quite like Vanderbilt on Saturday. But the Wildcats cannot sleep on the Bulldogs’ 3-point shooting either. The team shoots 37.7 percent from beyond the arc on 19.4 attempts per game. This team has some shooters and will make the 3-pointers they take. Look out for Jordan Williams and Nigel Williams-Goss.

3 Key Players

Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga Guard: Northwestern’s primary defensive responsibility will be slowing down Nigel Williams-Goss. Goss averages a team-best 16.6 points per game and shoots 51.3 percent from the floor. He is not a shooter, he is a driver and creates havoc in the paint. Especially with Karnowski roaming the paint. He averages 4.6 assists per game. Bottling him up will be priority one for Gonzaga.

Vic Law, Northwestern Forward: Scottie Lindsey is likely to get a lot of the responsibility on Williams-Goss. That means a lot of his energy is spent defensively. For Northwestern to win, the team will need Vic Law to get out of this shooting slump and contribute. Law scored two points on 1-for-8 shooting and 0-for-5 from beyond the arc in Thursday’s game. Since Feb. 1, he is shooting just 32.2 percent.

Zach Collins, Gonzaga Center: The most important minutes in the game for Northwestern are likely going to be when Dererk Pardon is out of the game. And that could be dangerous no matter how is at center. Collins is the backup and could eat against Barrett Benson. Collins is averaging 10.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game off the bench. He is the Bulldogs’ best NBA prospect and likely could go in the Lottery. Collins is extremely skilled on the low block and can step out and shoot 3-pointers too.

Prediction

Northwestern has a tall task ahead of it in trying to topple the top-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Gonzaga has weaknesses. The Bulldogs do not rely heavily on the 3-point line and have had some consistency issues playing full games. And for sure, Gonzaga has not played a challenging schedule. They can get pushed. Look at how South Dakota State hung with them for much of the game.

But the Bulldogs are still very good. They will pound the Wildcats inside and attack the glass. Northwestern is going to have to swarm to secure possessiona nd control the pace of the game. That will be difficult with Gonzaga’s constant attack and better depth.

Northwestern should put in a good fight and hang around this game. But ultimately, there are too many weak spots. McIntosh gets in foul trouble? Game over. Pardon is in foul trouble or cannot play 35 minutes? Game over.

Gonzaga has all the advantages. The Bulldogs get pushed, but pull away in the end.

Gonzaga 75, Northwestern 63

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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