In a press conference the day before the game, Mark Few said he was worried about the conditioning of his players after Covid-related concerns caused the team to take a two-weeks long break from practice. The Bulldog players must have done some running on their own—and some shooting. Gonzaga outhustled the Hawkeyes all over the court and turned what have been two of Iowa’s strengths against them by shooting lights out from 3-point range and rebounding like men possessed. After falling behind, 9-5 to open the game, the Zags would come out firing—stretching the lead to as much as 20 points in the 2nd half. The Bulldogs, who seem to have a different duo or trio of players in each game that give extra-heroic efforts and post some particularly great numbers, were carried especially on the shoulders of Jalen Suggs in the shooting department and Joel Ayayi in the rebounding department on Saturday. Others played excellent roles as well, and the whole team contributed to some excellent passing and defense, but Ayayi and Suggs shined brightest on Saturday.
Consider Suggs, who consistently destroyed Iowa’s hopes of upending the Bulldogs by hitting 7 of his 10 attempts from beyond the arc (many NBA deep), scoring 27 points (18 in the first half), finding 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals and 1 mega-block. The block happened with 12 minutes left in the 2nd half, with the Zags up 74-58. After Suggs tried to sneak a lazy pass through defensive pressure and caused a turnover (he had 7 turnovers in the game—the only number in his stat line that hints at his youth), Iowa’s CJ Fredricks scooped up the ball and was streaking down court on his way to what looked like an easy lay-up. Suggs turned around immediately, obviously angry at himself, and with relentless hustle and quickness, chased Fredricks down and met him at the rim with a ruthless swat, giving the ball back to the Zags and negating the turnover.
Suggs, though undoubtedly amazing and on his way to being a high draft pick (along with Luka Garza), doesn’t have the kind of NBA-minded “I’m better than ya’all” ego that just lets his mistakes go. He’s obviously very hard on himself when he makes a mistake and works to correct every little deficiency he might have in his game. There weren’t many deficiencies in his game on Saturday. Besides the 7 turnovers and a couple missed free-throws, it would have been extra awesome to see Suggs throw the alley-oop dunk down that he sent off the back of the rim after Ayayi set him up perfectly with the lobbed dime—but I’m getting knit-picky. It’s a blessing to see this kid in a Bulldog uniform. He’s leading the team in assists, steals and blocks per game as well as 3-point shooting percentage at 56.5%, and anyone who has seen his performances in these first 4 games should be as excited as I am to see what he can do next.
Suggs is going to get a lot of deserved hype after his stellar performances against now-#3 Kansas to open the season and now-#4 Iowa on Saturday, but the very consistent, yet unsung hero of this Gonzaga team has been Joel Ayayi. His value to the team so far this season has been immeasurable. Ayayi always seems to be exactly where he needs to be to do great things for the Bulldogs—especially in big games. He had a game-high 9 rebounds, along with 2 steals and 15 points on 7 of 9 shooting against Kansas to open the season. Against the next ranked opponent the Zags played, #8 West Virginia, he had a game-high 21 points (adding 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals). He fills up the stat sheet in so many categories offensively and defensively and, as a 6’5” guard, leads the #1 team in the nation in rebounding with 10.2 per game.
Against Iowa, Ayayi had 11 points, 6 assists and 18—count ‘em—18 rebounds! Five of those were on the offensive end. Against Iowa and Luka Garza! He was the major contributor to the outstanding rebounding numbers Gonzaga posted in the game with 49 toral rebounds and 16 offensive rebounds compared to 37 and 13 for an Iowa squad that has been dominating on the glass in previous contests. He tied Corey Kispert for high assists in the game, another category the Zags performed well in Saturday with 25 assists on 36 made field goals to Iowa’s 16 on 35.
Despite fighting foul trouble and both eventually fouling out of the game, Gonzaga’s offensive bread and butter so far this year—with averages of 21.3 and 20 points per game respectively—Drew Timme and Corey Kispert, had great days on the court as well. Kispert helped Jalen Suggs light it up from long range in the first half, finishing 3 for 7 from deep, adding 6 assists 2 rebounds and 13 points. Along with Aaron Cook (who went 2 for 4 from deep and found 9 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal in 19 good minutes off the bench) Kispert and Suggs are the main reason the Zags found an outstanding 50% of their shots from deep falling through the net on 13 of 26 shooting from deep as a team.
With the help of co-forward Anton Watson, Drew Timme was faced with the monumental task of trying to slow down Iowa’s Luka Garza in the game. While Garza’s 30 points and 10 rebounds in 37 minutes might seem a poor job defensively for the Zags, Garza scored that many in less than half the minutes against Iowa State where he had 34 in 17 minutes—and I think the Zags did an excellent job of limiting his effect on the game Saturday. Garza never got anything easy and he didn’t get any clean looks from beyond the arc. All his makes were simply great shots from a great player. Considering the assignment, Timme had a great game himself—with a 6 for 10 shooting effort, 9 rebounds, 3 assists and 15 points. Much needed help to defend and face up against Garza came from the bench from last year’s redshirt freshman, Oumar Ballo. The 7’, 260-pound native of Koulikoro, Mali has consistently improved his game this season and will likely see more and more minutes as the season progresses. He played an important 9 minutes against Iowa for the Zags, going 3 for 3 from the field for 6 points.
As far as areas of improvement go for Gonzaga, the Bulldogs will definitely look to turn the ball over less and shoot better free throws. Luckily for Zags fans, both the Bulldogs and the Hawkeyes shot poorly from the free throw line and the misses evened out in the end. Neither team could find over 60% at the so-called “charity stripe.” Besides leading in almost every positive category, Gonzaga unfortunately led in the negative ones as well. Particularly troublesome were the 18 turnovers and the 23 fouls they accrued. Eleven of those turnovers came from Drew Timme and Jalen Suggs. Andrew Nembhard was a steady hand again for the Zags and had just 1 turnover in his 30 minutes on the court—posting excellent numbers on both ends with 13 points, 3 steals, 3 assists and 5 rebounds.
I don’t know about you but I’m gaining confidence in the possibility of a perfect season for Gonzaga this year. Perhaps perfection in the win column is too much to hope for, but the hurdle of getting past this dangerous Iowa team is a big step toward that goal. Next up are back-to-back games against the Northwestern State Demons on both Monday and Tuesday. I’m sure the Zags will do well in these contests, and coach Few might be able to work some of the bench players who don’t get in as often in for some significant minutes. The next ranked opponent for Gonzaga comes on the day after Christmas—next Saturday. The Bulldogs play #16 Virginia at the Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas. Virginia is particularly known for excellent defense and Gonzaga for excellent offense so it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out. Only two of the Cavaliers’ opponents have scored over 60 points this season. The first team to do so, the San Francisco Dons of WCC fame, upset Virginia 61-60. Virginia may have some good D, but I don’t think it’s going to hold back these raging Bulldogs too much. I’m gonna say Gonzaga runs away with a big win again, 92-75. Thank goodness for the blessing that is College Basketball this holiday season—and for all the players who sacrifice so much to stay healthy and safe, including not being home for the holidays.
P.S.: I saw some crazy rumor that the Zags might be a part of a New Year’s tournament that involves Baylor and Michigan State, but that may have been a social media joke I was too gullible not to fall for. Best Wishes to all, Merry Christmas and have a Happy New Year! Go Zags!!!
~ Clark Karoses