Before I continue, excuse me while I get something off my chest. ESPN, the worldwide monopoly on sports, is seriously making me angry lately! As a college basketball fan, I suspect I’m not alone. I look at the schedule before the Zags game against BYU Thursday: 5:30 pm PT on ESPN. Sweet, can’t wait for that one. I turn it on at 5:25. Oh, there’s a college football awards show on. It must almost be over. I’m sure they had the foresight to make sure they wouldn’t run that show into the game they have scheduled to air at 5:30. I mean a lot of times I miss the beginnings of Zags games scheduled on ESPN because they’ve scheduled the Gonzaga game to be aired so tightly with the conclusion of another basketball game they’re airing prior to it that the painfully slow minute and a half left in the Big 10, SEC or ACC contest that’s on takes 10 or 20 minutes out of the game I want to see (or nearly the whole half if that previous game goes into overtime)—but that won’t happen this time when they’re airing a show they must have already planned to end before 5:30 since that’s what they have scheduled.
I watch the college football awards show for 20 more minutes, and as each minute ticks by past 5:30 I get a bit more and more agitated and I start yelling at the screen. I’m missing the Zags game to watch a virtual awards ceremony! Kudos to everyone who got awards and all, but Jeez! Finally, they hand out the last award for player of the year to Devonta Smith—way to go, that dude is awesome, Roll Tide, etc.—but why didn’t that all happen a quarter of an hour ago? It’s like 5:47! Finally, commercial and they get to the game already in progress. Gonzaga 16, BYU 2. And thanks to ESPN, I’ve missed one of the most exciting and redemptive beat downs in the history of Bulldogs basketball. If you want to see a Gonzaga game this year you have to get there early, because it’s often not very long before it isn’t much of a game anymore. That was definitely the case on Thursday night.
This is the part I missed: Jalen Suggs takes BYU’s first possession away, stealing the ball and streaking down for a sweet and-1 lay-up to go up 3-0. Kispert gets a reverse lay-in along the baseline for another 2, then dials up a 3-pointer on the next possession to make it 8-0. BYU gets 2. Drew Timme hits 2 buckets to belittle the BYU frontcourt featuring 7’3” Matt Haarms, the notorious transfer from Purdue. Fellow big man Anton Watson takes a charge against Haarms for some further belittling. Oh, and then Jalen Suggs rips down a defensive rebound and just as his toes touch the court, throws a pass sidearm—Patrick Mahomes-style—nearly the whole length of the court to a streaking Joel Ayayi for the Frenchman’s first bucket. Rebound, assist, bucket in like a second and a half. That makes it 14-2. Timme burns BYU again, BYU timeout. By the time ESPN decides its finally convenient to tune in to the #1 team in the country, it’s 5:50 and almost 20 points are on the board, 16-2.
From that point, Timme scores again and Andrew Nembhard starts to get hot from deep. BYU’s next points would come only after the Zags were up 23-2 and though Gonzaga lets up on the gas a little, after Nembhard rains 3 3’s in 3 attempts, the Zags go into the locker room at halftime up 52-29, shooting 55% from the field, 50% from deep and 92% (11-12) from the free-throw line.
The near shut-out in those first 7 minutes of the BYU game was a tribute to some outstanding team defense. Jalen Suggs was particularly awesome against BYU on both ends, taking the defensive assignment early against BYU’s leading scorer, Alex Barcello (a 63% shooter from deep before the game). Suggs contributed heavily to the team effort that held Barcello to 9 points on 3 of 11 shooting. Not only does he make opposing players look foolish at times on the offensive end with his speed, quickness, athleticism and amazing passing ability, but his anticipation of where the ball is going to be makes him a steal-getting machine as well as one of the most dangerous shot-blockers on the team.
On top of that, with his football, fear-nothing toughness, he’ll cut a driving player off, stand his ground and take the charge like he did right after he hit a 3 pointer with 1:30 left in the first half. After the Cougars took the ball down the court, BYU’s Brandon Averette tried to drive baseline on Suggs. Always an excellent spot to cut off a driving player, Suggs stepped on the baseline and took the brunt of Averette’s momentum, falling back without even a hint of a flop—offensive foul, Gonzaga ball. A charge taken amounts to a steal, with the added plus of giving a foul to the opposing player who dealt the contact, and it pains me that what amounts to perhaps the best defensive play is basketball doesn’t get put on most stat sheets.
Suggs is remarkable on both ends, tough as nails, obviously loves the game and hasn’t seemed even a bit intimidated as a freshman leading the #1 team in the nation. Mark Few had some praise for his starting point guard after the game, saying that “one of his greatest gifts is his vision,” commenting on his ability to see possibilities lesser players would miss. It is a gift that yields results on both ends—passing, scoring and defending. Leading the team in assists and steals, Suggs’ stat line against BYU is a tribute to his artistry: 16 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 steals, 1 block, and 1 charge taken. Running into some foul trouble early against Portland on Saturday, Suggs had a more subdued 11 points, 3 steals, 3 assists and 2 rebounds.
Corey Kispert, who leads the Zags and the WCC in scoring, had high points for the Bulldogs on Thursday night with 23 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. While Thursday’s 9 for 16 shooting from the field and 2 for 5 from beyond the arc against BYU sounds like a stellar night for some, the way Kispert had been playing previously, his games against both BYU and Portland felt like off nights. Kispert missed a lot of drives that he usually finishes against BYU Thursday, and Saturday he shot just 6 for 14 from the field and 2 for 7 from beyond the arc against Portland, ending up with 14 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. Despite the off nights, his offensive game has become a wonderful mix of deep daggers, drives, mid-range pull-ups, posts and dunks. So many opponents have found that he can’t be stopped by anything short of a super-human effort. In the past 8 games, he’s led Gonzaga in scoring 5 times with point totals of 27, 32, 25, 26 and 23.
Drew Timme had been a slightly more quiet giant before Saturday—deferring to the likes of Kispert, Suggs, Nembhard, Ayayi and Watson—but came fully alive against Portland, Saturday. Against BYU, he gathered 12 points on 5 for 8 shooting, adding 4 assists and 2 rebounds. Saturday, however, against a Portland team that was outmatched by Gonzaga’s size, it was time to feed the post and Timme ate regularly. With high points for the night in 27 minutes, Timme shot 10-14 from the field, 6 for 6 at the charity stripe, gathering 26 points, 7 rebounds (3 offensive), 2 assists and 1 block. Fellow starting forward, Anton Watson, had a career-high night against Portland on feed-the-post-night for Gonzaga with 23 points on an outstanding 8 for 9 from the field, 6 for 7 from the free throw line, sinking his only attempt from deep and adding 3 rebounds and a block in his 24 minutes.
Against BYU, Watson proved his meddle as well. For the first time this season, a player other than Timme or Joel Ayayi led the team in rebounding as Watson had a team-high 8 rebounds, adding 8 points, another block, 2 steals and a charge taken as well. Already the lead shot-blocker for the Bulldogs, Watson has steadily become more and more effective in every facet of the game, an excellent sign for a Gonzaga team already up to its ears in excellence. On a team with 4 starters who can easily put 20 points on the board on any given night (Kispert, Timme, Ayayi, Suggs), Watson was a bit of an odd-man-out offensively to begin the season, relied upon particularly for his excellent defense. Watson achieved double digits in points both games against the Northwestern State Demons with 10 and 15, but had previously only flirted with double-digit points in a few previous contests. If Watson were to become a regular double-digit scorer, a serious aggressor on the boards, as well as the defensive specialist he’s always been—defending the rim and stressing opposing offenses with his length and athleticism all over the full-court—it would make the whole team exponentially more dangerous.
Considering Joel Ayayi’s play lately, “Danger” must be the Junior guard’s middle name. The leading rebounder for Gonzaga with just over 8 boards a game, the WCC player of the week for two weeks in a row with at least a double-double in 4 of the Bulldogs’ last 5 games, Ayayi did what no Gonzaga player has ever done and got himself a triple-double against Portland Saturday with an incredible 12 points, 13 rebounds and 14 assists—in just 28 minutes on the court! Against Dixie State, he nearly had a triple-double earlier this season on December 29th with 21 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists, but was pulled early as the lopsided victory got a bit out of hand. A humble, veteran team player who is never one to just try to get his own, Ayayi gets numbers everywhere in the stat sheet with an instinctual ability to be in the right place at the right time on both ends of the court. Against BYU, he had one of his more subdued scoring nights, getting 8 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals.
Besides all those starters just mentioned, Gonzaga’s got a sure-handed 6th man off the bench in Florida transfer, Andrew Nembhard. Nembhard logs more minutes than anyone on the team except Corey Kispert and Few utilizes his diverse talents to essentially sub for any of the starters, 1 through 5. The team doesn’t lose much defensively when he subs since Nembhard is an excellent defender and Kispert can bump down low if Nembhard subs into the starting lineup for Watson or Timme—and you end up with a “small ball,” lightning-quick, offensive and defensive monster of a line-up. Nembhard was criticized early in the season for some inconsistency shooting from deep, but lately has been impressive to say the least. Usually great from both mid-range and on the dribble drive, Nembhard got all his offense from deep in the game against BYU, as he went 4 for 7 from beyond the arc and 4 for 9 from the field—those 4 buckets amounting to all of his 12 points. Often filling in at point guard for Jalen Suggs, he is a careful handler of the ball and rarely makes turnovers despite making some incredible passes between defenders. In 54 minutes against both BYU and Portland, he never turned the ball over and was a primary reason Gonzaga had just 8 turnovers in each of these two games. Against Portland, he had a hyper-efficient 10 points on 4 for 5 shooting, adding 5 assists and a steal as well.
Gonzaga has an excellent 6 players getting most of the time on the court lately. Aaron Cook, who was out with a leg injury against BYU, appeared in the game against Portland. He is a seventh player Few trusts as a backup guard/ point guard who can put points on the board as well as lockdown defensively. The backcourt has always looked strong for the Bulldogs this season. The breakthrough that could make this team truly unbeatable would be to have another forward off the bench playing the kind of elite basketball that would make them trustworthy enough to consistently replace Anton Watson or Drew Timme for long stretches in the frontcourt—especially against teams with more than 1 giant down low. Oumar Ballo, a heavy, 7’ true center, is getting minutes subbing down low for Timme and Watson. Occasionally he performs well but Mark Few often quickly rakes him back to the bench after some sloppiness/slowness on either end. Ballo hasn’t been bad by any means but he certainly isn’t as polished as either Timme or Watson. He doesn’t have the speed to add to the transition game that is a big part of the offense for Gonzaga this season, nor the quick reaction time to rotate effectively on defense yet. WCC play in these next couple of weeks may be excellent for his development as well as the development of both Julian Strawther and Dominic Harris who have been getting minutes as guards but often get the rake for the same sloppiness Few just doesn’t have any patience for. Both freshman have had moments of brilliance inbetween some freshman mistakes.
Strawther, one of the 7 Gonzaga players scoring in double digits Saturday, had a particularly productive game against Portland with 12 points in just 8 minutes, adding a block and 3 rebounds, sinking a 3 pointer as well as all 3 of his free throws. Ballo, Strawther and Harris all need to be better on the defensive end before Mark Few is going to give them significant trust going forward. Opponents such as Portland have taken considerable advantage of the second string to make their point totals look better. All the blame shouldn’t fall on the bench, of course, but allowing any opponent 88 points as the #1 team in the nation doesn’t look good.
Pepperdine is up next, a team that has played some quality programs close in the non-conference slate. They are yet to start conference play after taking a pause due to Covid protocol, but hung tough and took a rough loss in their second game of the year to #22 UCLA in triple overtime. They also played a decent San Diego State team close in a 65-60 loss. Strangely, their last game played on December 23rd was a significant loss to CSU Bakersfield, 79-51. Perhaps something of a Jekkyl and Hyde team, I suspect the murderous side will be the one out when they play Gonzaga at a strange time this coming Thursday: 2 pm PT on ESPN2. Colby Ross (who averages 19 points, 7.2 assists and 1.3 steals a game) and Kessler Edwards (who leads the Waves in rebounding and blocks and scores just over 17 points a game) were some pretty bad dudes last season when they played Gonzaga tight right to the buzzer—and Pepperdine won’t be easy to handle on either end on Thursday. I think this one may be closer than the last couple games, though I think the Zags prevail: 90-75.
One thing to hope for: some more of that on-the-fly scheduling Mark Few and company put together lately and throughout non-conference play. What Gonzaga needs (or maybe we fans just really want it) is one or more non-conference games against top ranked foes in the middle of WCC conference play. Could that become a norm for the Zags, even outside a Covid-devastated year? It could be likely this year at least, as time slots seem to be opening up in the holes left by rescheduled games like this one against BYU in which the early February game time was moved back to accommodate both BYU and Gonzaga facing Covid-riddled California teams (Santa Clara and Pacific) that had to cancel. Maybe we could have one of the games Gonzaga had scheduled earlier in the season that ended up not happening? Texas? Baylor? Texas Tech? Tennessee? Hell, throw Villanova in the hat! One can only hope. Have a great week and GO ZAGS!!!
~ Clark Karoses