In the last installment I mentioned that it remained to be seen whether the hype surrounding Gonzaga’s most highly-ranked recruit, freshman Jalen Suggs, was for real. It is for real. In his debut and the game that followed he was very convincing. Suggs made some of the best defensive players in the country look a bit ridiculous—and was unselfish in distributing the ball to his teammates at opportune times. His spring and ability to finish around the rim off the break was mind-boggling. His shooting stroke looked smooth from NBA range, and he displayed a phenomenal ability to score, facilitate, pass, defend, rebound, create turnovers, and capitalize on turnovers in the fast break. Zags fans have every right to be ecstatic about this young man wearing a Bulldog uniform. Besides a technical foul 39 seconds into his first game (after an alley-oop dunk for his first 2 points as a college athlete) and a tendency, perhaps, to be too-willing to put his body at risk (he hit the deck really hard more than once)—his game against the Jayhawks was golden. He finished the opener with 24 points on 9 of 15 shooting (2 for 3 from deep, and 4 for 5 at the foul line), 8 assists, 2 steals and just 1 turnover in 24 minutes. Though not quite as impressive numbers-wise the following game against Auburn, (Suggs had 12 points on 6 of 9 shooting, 6 assists and 4 rebounds), he continued to impress with elite athleticism and a command and control of the game few freshman exhibit so early.
Perhaps that command and control get a boost from having such excellent, reliable teammates. Suggs wasn’t the only Zag who put up points against Kansas. Five Bulldog players finished with double-digits and 3 had 20 or more. What I see after these first two games is a triumvirate leading the Zags on the offensive end, with great potential in others flanking the 3 as well. The triumvirate includes Drew Timme, Corey Kispert and the aforementioned Suggs. Timme, who has earned his place as the primary force down low for Gonzaga, is going to breakout in a big way this season. The sophomore has already risen to the top against superior defense in these early contests after showing considerable ability as a freshman last year. In 32 minutes against Kansas, Timme was 11 for 15 from the field, 3 for 4 at the charity stripe, and added 6 rebounds and 2 steals to his game-leading 25 points. Against Auburn he posted even more impressive statistics with a double-double, going 11 for 16 from the field, 5 for 6 from the free-throw line, adding a career-high 28 points along with 10 rebounds (and he hit his only three-point attempt). He’s super-slick, using either hand to finish and all manner of pivots and post moves to set himself up. And just like Suggs, Timme makes some great defenders look ridiculously inept down low. His mid-range looks spot-on and he uses the glass and the rim expertly at opportune times. If his deep shots start to drop at a consistent pace (he’s 1 for 2 from beyond the arc so far), there’s no ceiling to the numbers this guy can put up.
The same goes for Corey Kispert, Gonzaga’s senior field general on the court. He hasn’t missed from the free throw line in 7 attempts and his three-point shooting was spot-on against Auburn, shooting 50 % (4 of 8) from deep, 9 for 14 overall from the field, with 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 25 points. In an effort to be more than the excellent sharpshooter that he is, Kispert is taking the ball to the rim more often than last season—and to great effect. What I see early on from Kispert is even more intensity than last year, including an extra second of airtime in his jump. He is hanging and clutching in midair impressively when necessary—or simply throwing it down when he can. And every leap to the hoop is strong, so he’s getting fouled on the way and hitting his free throws when that happens. Consider his drive to the hoop on the baseline early in the game against Kansas when, despite Mitch Lightfoot’s attempt at a block was solid, Kispert elevated and relentlessly went for the dunk, getting fouled and earning a trip to the foul line despite missing the bucket. His vocal command of the squad all over the court provides a much-needed leadership role that his many years and hard work in the program have afforded him. With 23 points against Kansas on 8 for 13 shooting from the field, Kispert only missed from deep, shooting 3 for 8 from beyond the arc. When Kispert, Suggs and Timme are not getting 3’s from long range, they are going to be getting 3’s the hard way: with a bucket and a foul.
Flanking these offensive leaders are the two other starters, Anton Watson and Joel Ayayi, who have all the potential to make opposing teams pay in a big way on either end of the court. Many have recognized Watson’s importance to this Gonzaga starting line-up and have celebrated his return after shoulder surgery cut his season short last year. We saw the effect he can have on a game immediately in the opener against Kansas when Gonzaga applied full-court pressure in the first minute of play and Watson caused a turnover that resulted in the aforementioned alley-oop dunk by Suggs (and subsequent technical foul after Suggs’ celebration). And though he found more turnovers (3) than points (2) against the Jayhawks in his 19 minutes, we saw hints of what is to come when Watson fully asserts himself. He is the Cobra-head and the fangs of the full-court press that I have little doubt the Bulldogs will continue to use against all opponents. Against Auburn, though shaky from 3-point range, Watson grabbed 5 rebounds (3 offensive), dished out 2 assists, and added 6 points. His disruptive ability on defense and elite athleticism is key to this team’s success in transition—and though the offense doesn’t have to work through him this year, I suspect all his numbers will steadily improve as he assets his strength and finds his confidence in coming weeks.
Last but not at all least of the starters, Joel Ayayi struggled against Auburn on the offensive end, going 2 for 9 from the field and 1 for 4 from deep to add 5 points. Despite some inconsistency shooting, he continues to track down rebounds at an excellent clip, and he shined especially in the opener against Kansas with a 7 for 9 shooting effort, adding 15 points, 9 rebounds and 2 steals. Tied with Timme for the team-leading average rebounds per game with 8, Ayayi is a major contributor to Gonzaga’s superior rebounding numbers. The Bulldogs significantly bested their opponents rebounding (44 total rebounds for Gonzaga versus 32 for Auburn—13 to 9 in offensive rebounds/ 33 to 24 versus Kansas—6 to 5 in offensive rebounds) and considering the strength of their offense, if Gonzaga wins the rebounding battle in any game it’s pretty likely they’re going to win the game. Ayayi’s excellent anticipation on defense led to steals and easy lay-ups in both games. He also threw accurate alley-oops in both games to Jalen Suggs who dunked Ayayi’s assists emphatically. The kid is going to be golden this year whether he’s scoring a lot or not–and with all the other weapons in the Zags arsenal, perhaps he doesn’t have to. I suspect, though, we’ll see him at his best when he starts hitting from deep and continues being such an effective force on defense, on the boards and assisting others.
Off the bench, the highly appreciated transfer (and recently deemed eligible-to-play this season), Andrew Nembhard, has gained Mark Few’s confidence as an indispensable veteran presence in the backcourt with excellent poise and skill. The former Florida Gator played 32 minutes against Kansas, taking over some of the point guard responsibilities when Suggs found early foul trouble or playing along with 3 other guards and Timme when Gonzaga elects to go “small.” Nembhard ended up with 11 points and 3 assists against the Jayhawks. Graduate transfer Aaron Cook, every bit the defensive specialist he was expected to be as well as an athletic, dangerous threat offensively, has also found a consistent spot in the line-up and played an excellent 18 minutes against Auburn, with 5 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 impressive block and 1 steal. Nembhard and Cook, who would be starting point guards on almost any other team in the country, add veteran calm and excellence off the bench. Though I don’t suspect the starting line-up will change any time soon if everyone stays healthy, there’s no doubt both of these guys deserve their minutes in the backcourt and will be mighty forces to be reckoned with in the future.
Though Gonzaga definitely has some depth in the backcourt, it seems depth off the bench for the frontcourt is a cause for greater concern. In both games we saw last year’s redshirt, Oumar Ballo, enter the game for a spell. In both, Mark Few didn’t seem to like what he saw and quickly pulled the native of Mali out of the game. Few has also shown little confidence in the 7’0” native of Russia, Pavel Zakharov, giving him just a total of 3 minutes in both contests. Though Ballo found 12 minutes, he had more turnovers (2) and fouls (2) than points (0) in his 5 minutes against Kansas. He displayed some of the same youthful tendencies against Auburn, with a turnover and 2 fouls in 7 minutes, but came away with 4 points on 2 of 3 shooting. These two bigs, both true centers, will be important in contests like the one coming up against the now ranked #3 Iowa and the all-but-certain College Basketball Player of the Year, Luka Garza. Garza had monster numbers against the Southern Jaguars on Friday, going off for 41 points (36 in the first half!) on a 14-15 shooting effort including 3 of 3 from deep and 10 of 12 from the charity stripe. Ballo, nicknamed “Baby Shaq,” is a truly stout, bruising presence underneath and would be an awesome presence off the bench if his fundamentals and footwork improve. He and/or Zakharov are likely going to have to step up and try to defend Garza at some point on December 19th or on December 2nd against Baylor should Timme or Watson get into foul trouble. Though neither Ballo nor Zakharov is likely to become another shot-blocking machine like Brandon Clarke was two seasons ago, either could provide some rim protection that seems a bit lacking these first couple of games.
Besides Jalen Suggs, the other two members of the “tricky trio” (the three incoming freshman to the Bulldog team who know each other well), Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther, weren’t much of a force in the opening contest, with just 5 minutes and no points between them. They may, perhaps, get more press in newspapers and online than some of the starters as the two Gonzaga players who have been quarantined after a round of Covid testing prior to the game on Friday. It’s suspected that Strawther may be positive for the virus and Harris in quarantine because of close contact as Strawther’s roommate. Many articles have been critical of Gonzaga’s handling of a potentially dangerous situation—saying that any type of Covid issues should have been sufficient reason to stop play on Friday against Auburn—and that Strawther, as someone who played in the game on Friday, may have been contagious despite a negative test prior to the contest. The fact of the matter is that Florida health officials and health officials from all teams present in the tournament gave the game on Black Friday the OK, and contractual obligations that went along with the Fort Myers Tip-Off included the leniency with Covid issues that allowed the game to go on despite the fact that sort of leniency might not have been afforded had they been in a different location. As Mark Few put it: “Everything was followed per the tournament, per Lee County and per the Florida health department.” One hopes, of course, no further ill comes of the situation and that the two, very-talented young men will be ship-shape and back in uniform quickly.
Barring any other Covid issues (fingers crossed) Gonzaga will face the undefeated (3-0) and now #11-ranked West Virginia Mountaineers on Wednesday. The Mountaineers won the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic, with a convincing win against VCU and narrow wins against Western Kentucky and South Dakota State. I predict Gonzaga will have little trouble finding their third win against West Virginia, provided the Bulldogs have all of their key players available. I predict Gonzaga reaches the century mark again, beating the Mountaineers 105-82. The game against the Baylor Bears (ranked #2) on Saturday is going to be another story. Again, provided everyone has a full line-up and the game isn’t cancelled, I predict Gonzaga finds some extra incentive on the defensive end, holds the Bears to sub 35% from deep (they were over 55% from behind the arc against the Ragin Cajuns of Louisiana in a 112-82 rout and close to 45% in their spanking of the Washington Huskies, 86-52 on Sunday). The Zags win with a lot of points coming from the free-throw line, 95-87. Stay safe and Go Zags!!!
~ Clark Karoses