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Examining Gonzaga’s Non-Conference Schedule

Mark Few has dialed up one of the nation’s most difficult and scintillating out of conference schedules this season.

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NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga vs Tennessee
Zach Collins puts on a masterclass in the art of setting a screen.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

In case you haven’t peeked at a calendar recently, Gonzaga’s season tips off in less than a month on November 6. So, let’s run through the schedule in November and December to see what Mark Few has in store for the non-WCC portion of the season’s basketball menu.

While the curtain raiser is an inherently exciting event, a Tuesday evening game against the Bengals of Idaho State doesn’t exactly qualify as a marquee match-up (no offense to Idaho State) considering they finished the 2017-18 season with a 14-16 record and a KenPom ranking of 226. But highways have on-ramps for a reason, and after Idaho State and Texas Southern the Zags will need to be up to speed when Texas A&M comes to Spokane on November 15.

A&M won’t have three of the key players that helped produce a blowout win over UNC in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament as Tyler Davis, Robert Williams, and DJ Hogg all left school early. The Aggies are also reportedly reinventing themselves from the post-heavy offense we saw three years ago at the Battle 4 Atlantis into a more modern pace-and-space attack after Michigan convinced Billy Kennedy that the three-point line is a concept that should be embraced following a 99-72 drubbing in the Sweet 16. Whether that philosophical change bears fruit for Texas A&M is a question that won’t be answered until the end of the season, and perhaps even beyond, but the possibility of an up-tempo barn burner against the Zags—who looked to be at their best last season playing that style—in the third game of the season makes this a can’t miss event. In particular, the point guard duel between Josh Perkins and TJ Starks should be pretty fun to watch.

After A&M, the Zags head to Lahaina to headline the strongest field ever put together for the Maui Invitational. This intrepid blogger will be traveling to that tournament on a plane that will assuredly be full of Illinois basketball fans who think their first round opponent is Gon-ZOG-uh. By their return flight home, those fans will have learned all about GonZAGa. The Illini have fallen on hard times since stealing a win in the Kennel seven years ago (karma, it’s real), but Brad Underwood might have something cooking in his second year with the program, and he’ll be leaning hard on true freshman point guard Ayo Dosunmu who is the rare top-ranked recruit from Chicago that decided to play for the in-state school. Fellow Top-10 teams Duke and Auburn will be on the other side of the bracket, and to get to one of them the Zags will need to get past Arizona or Iowa State in the second round.

The schedule doesn’t let up after returning from Maui. The Zags will travel to Omaha in the return leg of their home-and-home series with Creighton, whom Brian Bowen Sr. testified offered $100,000 and a “good job” for the services of his son. Though he eventually committed to Louisville, Brian Bowen Jr. (inexplicably nicknamed “Tuggs”) ultimately never played a minute of college basketball thanks to the FBI, and, Rick Pitino trusting people too much (that is laugh out loud funny). Anyways, shouts to Creighton for trying to drop the bag. I’m sure the failed financial flex was due in large part to Greg McDermott realizing he needed Bowen Jr. in the lineup to have a shot at beating Gonzaga in Spokane last year. Also, what do we think that “good job” was?

After returning from Omaha, Gonzaga will host UW in Spokane despite also hosting the Huskies last year in Seattle. Wasn’t this supposed to be an alternating venue arrangement or did Lorenzo Romar find a way to mess that up too? At what point does UW get to play a home game? None of this seems very fair.

After scrimmaging with the Huskies, the Zags should be sharp when they head to Phoenix a few days later for the inaugural “Jerry Colangelo Classic.” This is a very real and random four-team basketball soiree, and not at all a front for someone’s money laundering scheme (I’m in the middle of watching Ozark, alright). Nevada, whom the Zags should be playing, will be there to play Grand Canyon. Instead of the match-up everyone wanted, Gonzaga gets to play Tennessee for the third time in four years. I regularly feel like Rick Barnes’ teams should be better than they are, but the Vols will legitimately be a tough out considering they return all five of their starters—including reigning conference player of the year Grant Williams—from a team that won a share of the SEC regular season crown. Then again, the Vols also have a spotty track record against Jesuit institutions. Back-to-back losses against Gonzaga in 2015 and 2016 stand out, and then there is last year’s unforgettable NCAA Tournament elimination at the hands of the Fighting Sister Jeans.

Beyond the Maui Invitational, a visit to Chapel Hill and the Dean Dome is THE premier event on Gonzaga’s schedule, a final showcase event for a national audience, and a rematch of the 2017 National Championship—albeit with mostly different faces on the two teams. Freshman phenom Nassir Little certainly catches the eye, and everyone should brace themselves for a steady barrage of “Luke Maye turned down the Zags to walk on at UNC” content in the buildup and during the broadcast of the game. This will certainly be a tough game for the Zags after a grueling month of basketball. On the other hand, Roy Williams—who presumably has a pulse—made the following comments this week:

If the head coach of one of the premier basketball programs is truly “dumbfounded” (he can’t be) by what’s going on in the recruiting trail, then let’s lock in the Zags for a thousand point victory.

Gonzaga wraps up the month of December against UT-Arlington, Denver, North Alabama, and CSU-Bakersfield. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Zags had a letdown after running through the gauntlet before this stretch, and let’s face it, the Kennel tends to lose its teeth while the student body is away for Christmas break. But frankly, and with apologies to the coaches and athletes on those teams, if those four games don’t result in four victories it may be best to avoid this website as things are going to take a dark turn around here.

To recap, Mark Few has really outdone himself this time. Between November 15 and December 15, Gonzaga will play one of the toughest 30-day stretches in the country while traveling 16,356 miles to do so. Somewhere, Randy Bennett is disgusted.