The imbecility of such tweets always irks me. Based on the assumption that a team like Gonzaga can simply choose to be in a power conference or in the PAC-12, the authors of such drivel must have been told at one time or another that there are eligibility requirements for universities to be members of particular conferences, and conferences with some of the larger universities often require 1. a certain enrollment (Gonzaga’s student population is much lower than many of the larger universities and likely wouldn’t exceed the threshold set to be part of a conference like the PAC-12), 2. a football team (Gonzaga doesn’t have a football team and wouldn’t likely be a welcome member of the PAC-12, the Big 10, the Big 12 or the SEC, all of which likely make more money on football than basketball), and 3. proximity to the other universities in the conference (Gonzaga isn’t in the ACC because Florida and Wahington State are quite a ways away from one another, plus 1 and 2). This tweeter seemed to think that Gonzaga could just be a part of any old conference it chooses, but it continues to choose to be in the WCC because the Zags want a bunch of gimmie games in conference play instead of a challenge. Everything is wrong about that assumption. Challenging the team in every possible way and getting as many games with ranked opponents on the schedule has been a trademark of Gonzaga basketball for years—and it is especially true this season.
The idea that Gonzaga should be stripped of its #1 ranking is also ridiculous. The Bulldogs have earned their #1 ranking by going 17-0 so far this season and by beating a number of very good, ranked teams in their non-conference schedule. And who has decided they are #1? Coaches and experts who know college basketball well. If you don’t believe in the judgement of some of the best coaches of college basketball teams in the country, or you don’t like the decisions made by the AP pollsters, then go ahead and throw the numbers out the door. Ignore them. If you’re willing to listen to those folks, they seem to think pretty highly of Gonzaga.
If, as I suspect, what this guy was actually saying in his tweet was that Baylor should be #1 in the country, he might have a decent argument (especially after getting the win against Texas on Tuesday) and a few of the coaches and experts who vote for those rankings agree—but don’t knock Gonzaga while you’re making that argument. Both the Bears and the Bulldogs are undefeated so far, both have records of 17-0, and both teams have faced quality opponents on their way to being undefeated. That Baylor is in a conference with consistently more highly ranked opposition is true, but you can’t fault Gonzaga for not trying to schedule high-quality opponents. If the Bulldogs were trying to dodge the Baylor game on December 5th, why would they schedule the game in the first place and travel to the venue to play? They didn’t have to schedule games with Baylor, West Virginia, Iowa, Virginia, Kansas etc. They scheduled them, often on very short notice, because Mark Few and the program wants to compete against the best teams in the country. The cancellation of the game against Baylor was just the bad luck that comes with (perhaps the tweeter has heard of it) the Covid-19 pandemic.
The funny thing is, when this guy tweeted about Gonzaga not deserving it’s #1 status because it plays “cupcake” games, Baylor had just played a conference game against Auburn. Auburn, a member of the Big-12 conference with Baylor, is by no means a cupcake, but who else played Auburn this year? Gonzaga did, in the second game of their non-conference slate, the day after the Bulldogs beat Kansas (another Big-12 team) on Thanksgiving, 102-90. The Zags prevailed 90-67 in that Black Friday game against Auburn. Last Saturday, Baylor beat Auburn 84-72. If this guy is trying to say that Gonzaga is trying to avoid playing games against the teams in the Big 12, he’s definitely wrong. Not only did the Zags have that game against Baylor scheduled with every intention to play, but the Bullodgs played West Virginia, Kansas and Auburn in the non-conference schedule this season and beat them all. Before early scheduling went awry this season, Gonzaga had scheduled games or potential games in a tournament against Texas and Texas Tech (both in the Big 12) in the non-conference, and they filled the slots when cancellations happened with teams like Kansas and West Virginia. To say that the Bulldogs are dodging any challenge is not only wrong, it’s insulting, because Mark Few and his staff are putting every effort into playing as many challenging teams as possible.
If one wanted to argue that Baylor, Villanova, Michigan, Houston or any other deserving team should be #1, one might say that though Gonzaga’s record is perfect, their quality of play hasn’t been exceptional at times. Lately, one might have a good point in saying so. Having played a few WCC games recently that saw the Zags struggle in the first half of play, often falling behind for some minutes at the outset, the Bulldogs have shown some weakness early in each contest. Last Saturday, Gonzaga was down 16-7 against Pepperdine with 15:41 to go in the first half before they turned things around. Last Thursday, against San Diego, the Bulldogs didn’t pull ahead with a comfortable lead until there was 8:09 left in the first half, when Jalen Suggs hit his second three-pointer. On January 16th, Gonzaga found themselves down by double digits to Saint Mary’s, 12-22 with 9:03 left in the 1st half and the Bulldogs were only able to turn that into a lead they would maintain after Joel Ayayi made a layup with 1:53 left before halftime. Gonzaga did end up winning those games by 22, 28, and 14 points respectively, but there’s no doubt about the fact that the Bulldogs have had some trouble bringing the energy they need to coming right out of the gate.
In upcoming games we’ll look for Gonzaga to bring some fire early. Now, if you’re doing the opposite of nit-picking for weakness, and are instead looking for good reasons to argue that Gonzaga deserves their #1 ranking, I think the best sign (besides continuing to win) for the Bulldogs lately has come from some excellent play from Anton Watson and many players off the bench. Of course, Gonzaga’s starters are extremely talented and solid. Kispert, Timme, Suggs and Ayayi all average double-digits in scoring per game, with Kispert at the top with 20.2 points per game, just in front of Timme who is averaging 18.7. Ayayi and Suggs are both phenomenal in all categories—Ayayi in scoring (11.9 ppg) and rebounding (7.2 rpg) in particular, Suggs in scoring 13.5 ppg), dishing assists (4.5 apg) and stealing the ball (2.3 spg) on the defensive end. Anton Watson, the fifth starter for Gonzaga, who shares big man responsibilities down low with Drew Timme, hasn’t had the stellar scoring numbers of the other 4, but seems to be progressively becoming more of a dangerous offensive threat with each game. With a steadily increasing average of 8.1 points and 4.5 rebounds in 22 minutes per game, it’s Watson’s efficiency that is so impressive lately. In the last two games the Zags played, Watson has a combined total of 22 points on 11 for 14 shooting from the field (including a 5 for 5 effort against San Diego) and has gathered 10 rebounds. Watson continues to struggle shooting from deep, but his near-perfection from everywhere else—including on the defensive end where he is a tenacious disrupter of opposing offenses—makes him an ideal 5th man.
The first man off the bench for Gonzaga is almost always Andrew Nembhard, a veteran transfer from Florida. Though he comes off the bench for the Bulldogs, Nembhard averages the 4th highest minutes per game of any player on the roster, and he’s just below the double-digit mark with 9.4 points per game while leading the team with 4.6 assists per contest. His contributions all over the court, but especially as a back-up for Jalen Suggs, have been monumental since the beginning of the season. With a combined total of 22 points and 18 assists in the last two games for the Zags (both games found Suggs sitting for long stretches due to foul trouble) the Zags never lost a beat even when their freshman phenom had to take a seat. Shooting better from 3-point range as the season progresses, Nembhard’s ability to execute the offense without turning the ball over makes him an ideal sub in the point guard position. He averages only 1.1 turnovers per game while Suggs, who can sometimes get overly creative with some of his passes, averages 2.9 turnovers a contest. That is not to say that Nembhard is a better choice, as Suggs brings a vast array of excellence to the court that no other player on the roster can—it is only to say that Nembhard is ideal in his absence.
Though Aaron Cook, another veteran transfer, lingers in the shadows of the talented Gonzaga backcourt this season, he is proving his worth as a steadying force when things go awry. It seems that every time the Bulldogs seem to be going in the wrong direction, Mark Few sends Cook in to right the ship. That was definitely the case on Saturday against Pepperdine. When Gonzaga was down 16-7 to the Waves early, it was Cook who cooked up some hard-nosed defense as well as some steady shooting on his way to 15 points, 3 steals and 1 block on 6 for 8 shooting from the field and 2 for 3 from beyond the arc in 21 minutes on the court.
Oumar Ballo, the biggest force off the bench down low for Gonzaga this season has unfortunately been out with a thumb injury—and will likely miss a few weeks. His presence down low is going to be missed against any opponents with big frontcourt players. Hopefully he’ll be back quickly, but in the meantime his absence may provide more minutes for up and comers Dominic Harris and Julian Strawther. Both freshman for the Zags have had up and down moments this season, but their hard work seems to be paying off with some consistent excellence on the court. Strawther had a big night against San Diego last Thursday, where he scored 11 points in just 10 minutes of play, going 4 for 5 from the field and 2 for 3 from deep. Harris had a similar night the week before against Pacific, scoring 11 points on a perfect shooting night where he went 3 for 3 from the field, 2 for 2 from downtown and 3 for 3 from the charity stripe.
To me, it is a good sign for Gonzaga that their starters and consistent subs continue to shine and develop while the deeper bench gains confidence. This coming week, it looks like Gonzaga has run into some bad luck as both WCC opponents they had scheduled, Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara seem to be unable to play due to Covid issues. It was rumored that Gonzaga might be able to turn that bad luck into good luck by scheduling one or more ranked foes in their place. Karthik Venkataraman of KREM 2 news considered the possibilities for potential high-profile Gonzaga opponents should a program step up to the challenge. Zags fans everywhere were licking their chops, waiting to see if the Bulldogs would get to play Houston, Villanova, Saint Louis, or perhaps UCLA—all of whom had openings. It wasn’t to be despite the Zags reaching out, especially to Houston and Villanova. Instead, the WCC has rearranged things and is going to give Gonzaga a game against Pacific on Thursday in California and against BYU in Provo on Saturday. A bit of a let-down when everyone was hoping for Houston or Villanova—but a bit less of a let-down ever since both of those teams lost on Wednesday night. Villanova fell to Saint John’s, 70-59, and East Carolina got the upset over Houston, 82-73. So it goes in the crazy world of College Basketball. I doubt the Zags will take either of these WCC games lightly on the road, especially the trip to Provo where they lost their only WCC game last year. Have a great week! GO ZAGS!!!
~ Clark Karoses