Men’s basketball heads west for marquee matchup with Gonzaga

Austin Hannon, Staff Reporter

The SEC Championship Game is not the only task for Alabama Athletics this weekend. 

On Saturday night, the No. 16 Alabama men’s basketball team (6-1) will take on the No. 3 Gonzaga Bulldogs (7-1) in the “Battle in Seattle.”

This matchup is the first of a home and home, with next year’s matchup in Birmingham.

The Crimson Tide played at the ESPN Events Invitational in Orlando last week and finished 2-1 on the weekend. Alabama lost its first game of the tournament to Iona, but responded with wins against Drake and Miami.

Gonzaga entered the season as the consensus No. 1 team in the country. But as they normally do, the Bulldogs scheduled tough in the nonconference and lost their top-ranking after losing to the Duke Blue Devils in Las Vegas over the weekend.

“Even though they aren’t number one, they clearly were before,” Alabama forward Juwan Gary said. “We’re very excited about this game because we know they are a very good team.”

Both teams are top-10 scoring offenses in the country, but they get it done in different ways.

Alabama relies on its perimeter scoring, with its top three scorers at the guard position. Shackelford, Jahvon Quinerly, and Keon Ellis are averaging a combined 45.9 points per game.

“There’s some motivation with them being as good as they are,” Crimson Tide guard Jaden Shackelford said.

For Gonzaga, it’s all about the paint. It starts with Drew Timme, whose skills under the basket are just as impressive as his mustache. Timme is leading Gonzaga in scoring with 17.4 points per game.

The 7-foot tall freshman Chet Holmgren is showing why he is a future NBA lottery selection. Holmgren is averaging 13.8 points and seven rebounds, as well as 3.9 blocks per game. He handles the ball well for his size.

Gary understands the challenge that the Gonzaga players present.

“Chet is a very good player for a 7-footer,” Gary said. “He can put the ball on the ground, shoot it and bring it up the court. I just gotta put a little ball pressure on him and make him uncomfortable.”

Gonzaga has plenty more talent. Guard Julian Strawther is shooting 42.5% from the three-point line. 

Guard Andrew Nembhard has experience playing against the SEC, starting 67 games for the Florida Gators from 2018 to 2020. Nembhard is the Bulldogs’ assist leader, averaging over five a game.

“They don’t mind running up and down the floor with us,” Shackelford said. “We need to play our best game this Saturday.”

Gonzaga is a very experienced team, but their head coach, Mark Few is even more experienced. Few has coached the Bulldogs for 22 years, and his resume stacks up with the nation’s best. In his tenure, Gonzaga has won the West Coast Conference 20 times and been to the final four twice. 

Few is the winningest active coach in the country with a winning percentage of 83.4%.

The Bulldogs haven’t lifted the hardware yet, but they have come close. Gonzaga reached the national championship twice, against North Carolina in 2017 and against Baylor last year.

“We’re obviously excited to go out to Seattle and play this game,” Alabama head coach Nate Oats said. “Our guys are gonna be ready. Gonzaga is one of the best teams in the country. It’s gonna be a good test for us. We want to play good teams like this.”

Although it is not a “true” road game, Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle is a four-hour drive from the campus of Gonzaga University in Spokane, so it will be filled with Bulldogs fans.

Tip-off is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 4, at 7 p.m. CT on ESPN2.