Now sitting at 10-0, this is only the 2nd season in Gonzaga’s NCAA history that the team began conference play with an undefeated record. The last time wasn’t so long ago. The 2016—17 Zags went 12-0 through non-conference play with narrow wins over just two ranked foes, #21 Iowa State (73-71), and #16 Arizona (69-62). Led by a Washington transfer by the name of Nigel Williams-Goss, those Bulldogs had perfection in the win column at 29-0 through most of conference play, got convincing wins three times over a Saint Mary’s team ranked either #21, #20, or #19, only to fall at the hands of unranked BYU during conference play on February 25th, 79-71, in the game that would have made them 30-0. The team would work its way through the NCAA tournament field in March, all the way to the Final Four and the title game against North Carolina where they notched their second loss and finished 37-2 in what is universally recognized as the Bulldogs most successful season ever. Can Gonzaga one up that kind of performance—or, rather, two up it, this season? Not an easy task to say the least.
One could say the team Mark Few has assembled this year is a different, and perhaps even a more dangerous beast than even that very excellent team of yesteryear. Perhaps. Perhaps not. What one could safely say at this point is: given what Gonzaga has been able to achieve so far this season in non-conference play, with double-digit wins over some of the most highly-ranked opponents possible, Gonzaga could, and maybe even should, remain unbeaten through the WCC conference slate and the WCC tournament. Anything less would definitely be a surprise, a disappointment and a huge upset for whoever among the Bulldogs’ WCC foes could slip away with a win against the Zags.
Things in the WCC are similar to the way things have been in the past, with one exception. Sometimes when entering conference play, another WCC team besides Gonzaga will be ranked in the top-25. Usually a Saint Mary’s or a BYU team. This year that’s not the case. BYU and Saint Mary’s present significant hurtles along the path to perfection—no doubt about that. Though they fell in Spokane, BYU was able to satisfy its home crowd and beat a very excellent Gonzaga team last year in Provo. Pepperdine, with Colbey Ross at the helm, wasn’t an easy out last year either. But I’m going to go ahead and go out on a limb (though not so far from the trunk) in saying Gonzaga, barring huge problems with injuries or some Covid disaster—will beat every WCC team this year twice and/or thrice.
I say so knowing that even against non-ranked foes that’s not going to be easy, and that every team who plays Gonzaga wants to take down #1 and will sometimes put in extra-human efforts to do so. Gonzaga, however, has given us every indication so far that they’re good enough to come out on top against any WCC team, even on a night where they’re shooting goes cold. I know running through WCC conference play without a loss is much easier said than done, but as at least one ESPN announcer recognized on Saturday night, running the slate through the whole season, even after entering the NCAA tournament is a whole different barrel of monkeys. When we try to answer the question can Gonzaga reach the end of the NCAA tournament undefeated. Who knows? There are a slew of very dangerous opponents, even undefeated ones, the Zags have not faced yet and who could shatter the expectations and dreams of so many players, coaches and fans. Michigan, who Gonzaga had so much trouble last year in the title game of The Battle 4 Atlantis tournament early, is 9-0 (4-0 in the Big Ten) with a hefty win over Northwestern on Sunday, Texas has a single loss to Villanova and destroyed Kansas earlier on Saturday—Villanova is really good, and Baylor (9-0) with a giant B looks excellent as well. Those are just the ones that come to mind and I’m sure there are some teams who remain under the radar so far. The tournament is too hard to predict at this point and to say anything is just plain foolhardy. Do they have a chance of doing so? Yes, no doubt about that.
What Gonzaga is going to try to do, as the players and coaches have said already, is not get complacent, not rest on their already significant laurels, approach every contest with the utmost seriousness and resolve, and take every game as it comes. And in the process, hopefully they’ll get even better than they already are. Evolution during the course of the basketball season is of utmost importance to even the best teams because other teams are evolving quickly into better, more dangerous teams all over the map.
The Bulldogs did not take their WCC foe lightly on Saturday night when they played a very decent San Francisco Dons team who threatened to give them trouble throughout the first half. After 6 minutes of play, the Dons even took a lead when Jamaree Bouyea’s 3-pointer made it 14-13. Bouyea, who would come away with 18 points in the game to lead the Dons, was a thorn in the side of the Gonzaga defense throughout the first half. The half proved to be a push and pull battle as the Zags would slip up and let their lead dwindle, then right the ship and go on a run, and then falter a bit and let San Francisco get close again, back and forth throughout those first 20 minutes. After Joel Ayayi and Andrew Nembhard hit 3-pointers for the Zags, and Corey Kispert made multiple lay-ups, the Zags found themselves up 16-25 and looked to be on the verge of stretching that lead midway through. However, Bouyea and company went to work with some nifty lay ups of their own.
Jalen Suggs, back in the starting line-up after taking a rest over the last two games due to some leg difficulty, wouldn’t score a basket in the first half. He finished with just 5 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and the 5 fouls that eventually ended the game for him. Suggs picked up 3 fouls with 8:22 left in the 1st half. After that 3rd foul sent Suggs to the bench, Dzmitry Ryuny hit two free throws and the Dons were back to within 3, 25-28. It wasn’t until the end of the half that things took a turn for the Zags. With 30 seconds left, and the Zags up 44-37, San Francisco was looking to run the clock out, perhaps get a bucket, and go to the locker room down by just single digits. Bouyea, however, turned the ball over to the Zags with two seconds left and the Bulldogs took it out near half court. Executing a play that should have made Top-10 on ESPN, Kispert was able to cut across the face of the defense, receive the ball at a full sprint, and pull up just a step or two inside of half court to drain a “Dame-time,” 40-foot 3-pointer that brought the smiling Bulldogs players into the locker room up 47-37.
They wouldn’t let that double-digits lead go through the rest of the game, stretching it to a 21-point lead with 12 minutes left after Anton Watson finished through contact for a 3-point play. They wouldn’t let go of that 20+ point lead either, finishing the game with a score of 85-62. The Dons had gone into the contest with the stated purpose of keeping Corey Kispert from hitting 3’s. They did a good job of just that as Kispert hit just that one NBA three to end the half, going 1 for 3 from beyond the arc. But the Dons found out that taking away one aspect of Kispert’s game wasn’t going to do them much good, as Kispert switched gears and filleted the Dons’ defense repeatedly and perfectly with excellent cuts, backcuts and drives to the hoop. He is among the best I’ve seen at finishing strong through contact, getting numerous 3’s the hard way on Saturday. He did not miss a single basket inside the arc, going 9 for 11 from the field, 7 for 8 at the free-throw line, adding 3 rebounds and 3 assists to his 26 points. Player of the year talk is warranted.
Drew Timme, Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs had been the most common high scorers for Gonzaga in the games at the beginning of the season. In the past 4 games, however, Joel Ayayi has shared high-scoring honors as either top scorer or second-high scorer for the team with either Kispert or Timme. Besides that, Ayayi rebounds like a man possessed and has had double-doubles in each of the last 3 games.
And to top it all off, Ayayi’s become lethal from deep as well. Prior to the last 3 games, the native of Bordeaux, France had struggled from deep with a sub-20% shooting average from beyond the arc. Everyone on the team knew he could shoot well from distance, so it was a relief but not a surprise when, in those last 3 games where he found double-doubles of 17 and 10, 21 and 11, and 18 and 10 (points and rebounds), the native of Bourdeaux, France is 8 for 11 from beyond the arc. Against San Francisco, he scored at an incredibly efficient clip, going 7 for 9 from the field for his 18 points. He and Drew Timme both have 5 games in which they’ve led the team in rebounds, though Ayayi boasts an incredible 18 rebound day against Iowa and leads the team in rebounding, averaging 8 a game.
Though Timme had a bit of trouble with a 4 for 10 night from the field, he was one rebound up on Ayayi against the Dons with a double-double of his own—garnering 10 points and 11 rebounds, and hitting his one attempt from beyond the arc. He was excellent on the defensive end with a block, a steal and only 2 fouls. The whole team put in an exceptional defensive effort in the second half as they held Bouyea, who had 16 points in the first half, to just a single field goal in the 2nd and the Dons team as a whole to just 25 points. San Francisco’s effectiveness from deep was neutralized by the Bulldogs’ smothering defense as well as the Dons could only come away hitting 23.5% from beyond the arc and 25% for field goals in that half.
Gonzaga is evolving, and I think the best indication of that evolution is on the defensive end. Already so proficient on the offensive end, the Zags defense is starting to get stingy and creating more and more offense in transition. A defensive power forward with excellent athleticism, length and swiping hands, Anton Watson showed hints of the rim defender he can be by the time the tournament rolls around, putting up 2 blocks against San Francisco. Getting 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 8 points and hitting 4 of 5 from the charity stripe, Watson is becoming exactly the threat he needs to be on the offensive end as well—not necessarily a high scorer, but the constant threat starting next to Timme that defenses can’t ignore.
With Joel Ayayi starting to find his stroke from deep, and Andrew Nembhard not only doing so many things as back-up point guard well by protecting the ball and fascillitating the game for others, but getting his attempts from beyond the arc to fall more consistently as well, the sky is truly the limit for this team that is only getting better and better. Nembhard was the only player to hit more than one shot from beyond the arc, shooting 50% from both the field and from deep (5-10 and 2-4). He added 3 rebounds, 4 assists and a steal to his 14 points on the night and has become one of Few’s favorites with the third highest minutes of any player behind Kispert and Ayayi.
The Zags need another forward/ center to step up and play at an elite level before tournament time rolls around. Besides Timme and Watson, Oumar Ballo has been coach Few’s #1 choice as a big getting minutes for Gonzaga. Ballo hasn’t proven himself to be consistently effective this season, and was quickly pulled from the game after some miscues on both ends of the floor against San Francisco where he got more turnovers (2) than rebounds and points. He’ll have to get things on the right track quickly as there will definitely be games in the future where his size and brute strength will be required—he just has to refine his awareness, improve his quickness, speed up his game, and just plain be better. The WCC might be a good proving grounds for him to refine his skills.
The Santa Clara Broncos are next up for Gonzaga on Thursday. They’ve been taking a break due to Covid protocol for their last two scheduled games. They have a record of 6-2, with a recent loss to USC by a score of 86-63. Provided they can play, I think the Broncos are going to try their best to slow down the Gonzaga fast-break machine. They won’t succeed. My prediction: 105-53, Gonzaga. Any chance that Baylor game might get rescheduled during conference play—perhaps if and when both teams have a Covid-related break and are both still healthy? Wouldn’t that be sweet? Happy New Year! And GO ZAGS!!!
~ Clark Karoses