SEATTLE - When last Saturday's seventh annual Battle in Seattle was scheduled, organizers were surely hoping for a made-for-TV matchup of Stephen Curry against the host Gonzaga Bulldogs. With Curry now in the NBA, the rematch of the 2008 first-round matchup where Davidson upset Gonzaga en route to the Elite Eight lost much of its luster, and KeyArena was only half-filled for the game. Still, the Wildcats provided a pretty good, entertaining game against a Zags team playing without senior guard Matt Bouldin. In fact, Davidson led by as many as seven points in the first half before Gonzaga used a 14-0 run to reclaim control. The Bulldogs would lead the rest of the way, but never quite put the Wildcats away in a 103-91 victory.
Athletically, Gonzaga overwhelmed Davidson. The Zags were by far the bigger team and the quicker team, reflecting the transition they have made from mid-major to legitimate year-in, year-out NCAA power. Without Bouldin, Gonzaga relied heavily on post players Elias Harris and Robert Sacre and point guard Demetri Goodson. Illustrating the difficulty Davidson had stopping those players, all three went to the free throw line at least 13 times. Combined, they shot 45 of the 54 foul shots the Bulldogs had as a team. The degree of the mismatch made it somewhat difficult to evaluate Gonzaga's stars with an eye toward the remainder of the season and the next level.
Harris, a 6'7" freshman, is one of three forwards from the state of Washington rising on draft boards (we've already discussed the other two, Seattle U's Charles Garcia and UW's Quincy Pondexter). DraftExpress.com has Harris projected in the middle of the 2011 first round. He has been one of the country's most productive freshmen thus far, though the German native is already 20 and was more ready to contribute than the average first-year player.
Against Davidson, Harris could do pretty much whatever he wanted, and he had plenty of options. Inside, Harris drew fouls at a prolific rate. While it got out of hand when he was ejected for throwing an elbow against Wake Forest, his physical play has been a strength thus far, and Harris is certainly not afraid of contact. He also demonstrated the ability to step out on the perimeter, facing up and driving to the basket at times and knocking down a pair of three-pointers with good form (improving him to 4-of-12 on the season). Despite all that, the strength of Harris' game is probably transition, where he can beat opposing big man down the floor and finish above the rim.
The big knock against Harris in the eyes of scouts coming into this season was his ability to play small forward in the NBA, which is surely where his future lies at his height. His ability to shoot the ball with range and capably defend smaller players, then, has been a pleasant surprise. Harris probably still has some work to do in terms of ballhandling and passing, but his athleticism makes him a very legitimate NBA prospect.
I suspect Sacre is another player who will earn more interest from scouts over the course of the season. A bit player as a true freshman before taking a medical redshirt due to a broken foot, Sacre has stepped in for departed Josh Heytvelt at center and is averaging 13.0 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Sacre is a 7-footer with solid athleticism and has shown impressive touch this season.
The Wildcats, who play skinny 6'10" centers, had no prayer of stopping Sacre, and it was no coincidence Davidson's best stretch of basketball came after he picked up two fouls midway through the first half and was forced to the bench. In his 25 minutes of action, Sacre ended up with an inconceivable 18 free throw attempts. Had he made a few more than 11, Sacre might have done better than his 23 points, which were already a career high.
The big area for improvement for Sacre will be on the glass. Having pulled down just one board on Saturday, he's now averaging just 8.8 per 40 minutes on the season. Still, the improved offensive game Steve Kelley of the Seattle Times highlighted will be as attractive on the next level as it is useful to the Zags in the here and now. DraftExpress has Sacre going late in the second round in 2011, but I think he's got the potential to go higher.
Goodson had struggled in his new role as a starter before putting together an outstanding game on Saturday. That certainly had much to do with facing a Davidson team that simply had no athletes able to keep with him on the perimeter, but I also think Goodson responded to having the ball in his hands with Bouldin sitting out. Placed in the role of creator, Goodson made a lot of things happen with the speed he memorably showed off in going coast-to-cast to beat Western Kentucky in last year's NCAA Tournament. Sometimes, that meant Goodson tried to do too much--he committed six turnovers, though he did not seem quite so mistake-prone in person--but it also turned into easy baskets for Gonzaga. Goodson was 6-of-7 from the field, almost entirely at the rim, and attempted 13 free throws. He was credited with two assists, but if that was all, they were certainly memorable for the way he set up his teammates in the paint.
Getting Goodson going is important for the Bulldogs, who are young and inconsistent on the bench. Mark Few has ridden his starters hard in big games, most notably in a win over Cincinnati to claim the Maui Invitational title. The reserves totaled just 24 minutes in a game that went to overtime.
That limited depth was certainly evident against Davidson, exacerbated by Bouldin's absence. Redshirt freshman Grant Gibbs started and saw the most action, but he contributed just two points in 29 minutes. (Gibbs was, improbably, the game's high rebounder with eight.) Though Gonzaga was never exactly hurting for offense, things began clicking much better in the second half when junior swingman Steven Gray found the touch from the perimeter and Sacre was able to stay on the floor.
For its part, even in scoring 91 points in 77 possessions, Davidson looked very much like a team adjusting to playing without a lottery-caliber talent. Because Curry dominated the offense so much last season (his 38.0 percent usage rate was tops in the nation), the Wildcats return just one player who used possessions at an average rate last season. Long-time head coach Bob McKillop's motion-based offense produced great looks at times, but interspersed were possessions where Davidson got too deep into the shot clock because of the lack of a go-to scorer (as well as Gonzaga's defense).
The Wildcats were able to stay close thanks to lights-out shooting from beyond the arc--14 makes in 23 attempts (60.9 percent). That kind of accuracy wasn't portended by either team's season-long stats. Davidson is good but not great from downtown, while the Zags occasionally have issues beyond the arc but not nearly to that extent.
Few probably did not entirely mind being tested because Gonzaga faces a much more challenging foe next Saturday - the Duke Blue Devils, No. 3 by Ken Pomeroy's rankings, at Madison Square Garden. The Zags won't be able to survive any defensive lapses in that game, and will need all five starters (including a healthy Bouldin) to show up to pull the upset.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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