Ayayi and the other Gonzaga starters had to make quick work on the court because they weren’t out there for long. With a comfortable lead through so much of both games, Few was able to reach deep into his bag of tricks and go to his bench for extended minutes, giving the upcoming Zag order a chance to work out the kinks. One of those up and comers goes by the name of Oumar Ballo, a youngster from Mali, who came to Gonzaga as a rough-around-the-edges, 6’10”, 16 year-old on track for one of those Bulldog redshirt years that has done so much for so many (Brandon Clarke, for instance)—now a 7’0”, 260-pound, somewhat more chiseled 18 year-old, he has begun to do the damage he is destined to do for Gonzaga—and he went to work mightily Tuesday night.
Ayayi had the first 5 points of the game against Northern Arizona, Monday, including a 3-pointer that likely drew a sigh of relief from coaches and fans who have seen Ayayi struggle shooting from deep early this season. It was the beginning of a barrage, and started what amounted to a 10-0 run right off the bat for Gonzaga. That quickly progressed to a 24-5 lead as Ayayi, Drew Timme and company combined to stretch the margin. When Ballo had a crack at Northern Arizona he went to work right away, and with 11 minutes left in the first half threw down a mean dunk with a foul and hit his free throw to get a 3-point play old-school style, making it 31-10. Things didn’t get much better for the Lumberjacks before the break as Anton Watson threw a pretty dime to Timme for a lay-up with 5 minutes to go to make it 42-16. Along with Andrew Nembhard and Aaron Cook, Ayayi kept hitting 3’s throughout the first half, and was just a few rebounds short of his double-double before halftime with the Zags up 51-23.
Not long into the next half, many of the starters bowed out for the night. In his 20 minutes on the court, Drew Timme went 7 for 10 from the field, added 6 rebounds and blocked 2 shots to go along with his 14 points. His footwork and expertise in the post drew parallels to Kevin McCale from the announcers. And he busted out the mustache salute celebration on occasion as well. Corey Kispert, without the hot hand he had when he hit 9 from beyond the arc and hung 32 points on Virginia, shot 0 for 2 from beyond the arc on Monday, but found 8 points and 8 rebounds nonetheless. In Ayayi’s incredibly efficient 20 minutes, he went 6 for 8 from the floor, 4 for 5 from deep, gathered 3 offensive rebounds and 10 rebounds total, adding 2 assists and a steal to his team-high, 17 points. Though he’s led the team in rebounds in 5 of the Zags 9 games, he’s only led the team in scoring in one other game. It happened to be against West Virginia, the closest game Gonzaga played where the team snuck away with an 87-82 victory on Ayayi’s team high 21 points and 7 rebounds.
One of the more worrisome stories that developed over the course of these two games is the mystery surrounding Jalen Suggs, the uber-athletic, uber-talented, freshman phenom who has had some great games since he started playing college basketball on Thanksgiving, and is projected to be a first-round, if not the #1 pick in the NBA draft. He was held out of both games this week. Let’s hope it’s not more than the minor concern that most are making it out to be—claiming that Suggs’ leg was bothered after the Virginia game and that he was being held out as a precautionary measure. My guess is we’re going to see him back in the starting line-up on Saturday for the WCC opener against San Francisco, where the Zags are going to make sure the Dons don’t surprise another ranked team with an upset like they did earlier in the season against Virginia.
No stranger to minutes at point guard or guard with the Zags, Andrew Nembhard replaced Suggs at point guard in the starting line-up, logging the most minutes of any Zag player with 30 on Monday and 27 on Tuesday. He put up great numbers Monday with 10 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds and 2 steals, following that up Tuesday with 9 points and 5 assists. And he had 0 turnovers—both nights. If there is any criticism to be waged about Jalen Suggs, it could be in the turnover department where he leads the team with an average of 2.7 a game. Nembhard averages 1.2, and though a healthy Suggs is probably a better choice to start over Nembhard, what a gift to have a backup point guard who can fill in for a superstar, take care of the ball so well and put up great numbers in his place.
In another couple of humble, but excellent efforts, Anton Watson went 3 for 4 from the field on Monday, a perfect 3 for 3 at the foul line, adding 3 rebounds to his 9 points. On Tuesday, he added 8 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and a steal. The ceiling for this kid is very high and I think as his intensity, focus and comfort improve, he’ll become both the defensive danger that he already is, and the offensive danger that every other starter on the team has proven they can be. Watson is the only starter in the Suggs, Kispert, Ayayi, Timme, Watson starting line-up who hasn’t come away with a high points total in a game yet. No doubt his day will come—if not this year, then the next.
Most of the second half on Monday night was left to some sloppy though sometimes inspired minutes for Gonzaga’s bench. Ballo finished his 12 minutes with 5 points on the dunk and-1 as well as a pretty left handed hook later in the game. The rest of the bench, unfortunately, shot often and poorly from deep, going a combined 1 for 14 from beyond the arc. Dominic Harris’ 12 points and Julian Strawther’s 5 rebounds were bright spots in a bit of an ugly stretch toward the finish. But each of those minutes was gold for these youngsters who need the reps to find their respective places in the Gonzaga gameplan. The Zags still finished shooting 50% from the field, pulled down 16 offensive rebounds and 44 total rebounds, compared to 10 and 32 for Northern Arizona which was held to an average of 35.1% from the field. Cameron Shelton, a Junior guard from Chino, California was a tough act of follow on Monday. The Zags threw a few different, excellent defenders his way. Besides the starters, Aaron Cook and Dominic Harris got the defensive assignment, but couldn’t hold him back often as he always seemed a step ahead and too quick and too accurate from deep, coming away with 20 points and 9 rebounds.
Dixie State had a similar superstar in their roster on Tuesday. Cameron Gooden, a 5’11” guard from Frisco, Texas, frustrated Zag defenders all night as well, shooting 3 for 5 from deep and adding 20 points for the Trailblazers. But Ayayi, super for the 2nd straingt night in a row, one-upped him by coming away with 21 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals. He was astoundingly efficient, shooting 8 for 9 from the field, 3 for 4 from beyond the arc and 2 for 2 from the free-throw line. A jedi indeed.
As far as points go, Corey Kispert once again bested all his teammates, getting 25 on a 4 for 6 shooting effort from deep, a 10 for 16 effort from the field, adding 3 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal. It may sound unlikely, but I think Kispert shoots better with a hand in his face. In the last 3 games, he’s been points leader in 2 of them—and it seemed to be the games in which the defenders were quick to close on him that he was at his best. Dixie State did a good job of closing out on him, getting a hand in his face as he released, as did Virginia on Saturday. To no avail, as he carved both teams up like deep-fried turkeys—whereas Northern Arizona gave him a clean couple of looks that he couldn’t put either attempt down. However he shoots best, he’s shooting really well so far this season. His 4 for 6 effort from deep keeps him over 50% from beyond the arc. When defenders overplay him on the outside, he’s also become an expert slasher to the hoop where he finishes efficiently and/or gets fouled on the way. From the field he’s over 60% and from the free throw line he’s just under 90%. No wonder he’s hanging 20+ on so many opponents this year and is getting some talk for Player of the Year despite Luka Garza’s amazing performances.
Though Oumar Ballo didn’t have 20+ like Kispert, in just 12 minutes against Dixie State he did some carving up of his own. With a pretty dunk off a pick and roll lob from Nembhard early, he finished the 2nd half with a number of impressive hooks, and some seriously strong post moves to find 17 points against Dixie State. If more of his free throws had fallen, Ballo could have had 20 Tuesday as he seemed to have more field goals with a foul in these two games than field goals without. Ballo couldn’t quite convert half of his trips to the line, finishing a combined 6 for 13 from the “charity stripe” for both nights. He was, however, a perfect 8 for 8 from the field Monday and Tuesday—and if his success Tuesday night puts a hunger in his belly and some fire under his feet, woe to those who stand in the way of this wide-shouldered force down low nicknamed either “Baby Shaq” or “Golden Tips.”
With the 63 that Gonzaga had at halftime (63-38) on Tuesday, the Zags finally beat the total Northwestern State hung on them in the second half of the second game they played last week (61). And 112 points is sure going to give their average total points per game a boost. And while their shooting average from 3-point land suffered as the bench players went a combined 0 for 7 from deep, Gonzaga still managed to shoot over 60% from the field.
This is an amazing team and there is already some talk of them going undefeated this season. Mark Few mocked such tomfoolery before the game on Monday, but no doubt about it, they certainly have the ability. And as the nine non-conference games have shown—they certainly aren’t fond of losing. Next up on the schedule, WCC play begins. BYU looks like the biggest challenge in the WCC, but the San Francisco Dons team they play this Saturday is never an easy out. Gonzaga narrowly squeezed out a win last year by 4 points in the Dons’ War Memorial Stadium, 83-79, managing to come away with they win largely through the heroics of Corey Kispert late in the game, and some excellent play from Drew Timme who was filling in for an injured Philip Petrusev. The Bulldogs had nearly the same outcome in the WCC tournament semi-finals where they defeated SF 81-77. This year, I don’t think the Dons can keep up with the Zags. I suspect an outcome similar to the Virginia game—though maybe not so one-sided in the first half. If Suggs plays, I’ll say 101-81. If he doesn’t play, 97-79. May the force be with you, Happy New Year!! Go Zags!!!
~ Clark Karoses