In an unprecedented season, Mark Few wants to play as many marquee non-conference games as possible. It’s good for the athletes, many of whom missed out on March Madness in 2020, and it’s also great for college basketball as a whole. With the NBA still a month away from returning, college hoops has a stage all to themselves for five days a week, so why not play as many big games as possible to showcase your sport?
Few, Mike Roth, and scheduling guru TJ Benson were able to get five national television games against Kansas, Auburn, Tennessee, Baylor, and Iowa (Tennessee has yet to be officially confirmed, but it’s 99 percent happening). Three of those teams are in the the AP Top 10, and the other two have been SEC power houses the last few years. When January rolls around, they’ll face their own set of challenges in the West Coast Conference. Of course, with all of that, the Zags will be facing some incredibly talented basketball players. Based on my own arbitrary rankings, here are the 10 best players Gonzaga will face this season.
10. Davion Mitchell - Baylor (6’2 junior guard)
Spoiler alert: this won’t be the last Baylor player on this list. There’s a reason they are ranked second in country, right behind Gonzaga. After transferring in from Auburn, Mitchell became one of the better two-way players in the country last season. He led the team in minutes and assists and is one of three players who averaged more than 1.5 steals per contest. He’s not an elite scorer, but he’s opportunistic enough to hover at double figures. If his defense remains exceptional and his offense takes a leap, Baylor will become even more dynamic.
9. Jaden Springer - Tennessee (6’4 freshman guard)
This is more of a hunch than anything else, considering he has yet to play a minute of college ball. Springer is a hyper-athletic big guard who comes to Knoxville ranked 15 in the nation, their highest rated recruit in a decade. He will join a starting lineup full of veteran players, but will have the highest ceiling of them all. With a plethora of talented guards in the year’s freshman class, Springer kind of gets overshadowed. He has a chance to make a name for himself when Tennessee takes on Gonzaga.
8. John Fulkerson - Tennessee (6’9 senior forward)
After a redshirt year and two seasons as a role player, Fulkerson broke out and became one of the best big men in the SEC in 2020. His 13.9 points and 5.9 rebounds were enough to win All-Conference honors. Now in his fifth year as a Volunteer, he will look to anchor a very talented front court in hopes of a deep NCAA Tournament run. Fulkerson played 14 minutes when they faced Gonzaga a couple years ago and had five points, five rebounds, and two blocks.
7. Ochai Agbaji - Kansas (6’5 junior guard)
Agbaji is on the long list of players due for a huge breakout season. Even though he started every game a season ago, he was more of a role player to a Jayhawks team that revolved around Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike. With their departures and no elite post option, Agbaji will become one of the focal points of the offense. He averaged 10 points and 4.2 rebounds a season ago and should have no problem getting that up to 15 or so. The back court match-up in the Kansas-Gonzaga game might be better than whatever you prepare for Thanksgiving dinner.
6. Yves Pons - Tennessee (6’7 senior forward)
One of the biggest breakout stars a season ago, Pons looks to build on his SEC Defensive Player of the Year campaign this winter. He jumped from 2.2 points a game to averaging 10.7, along with 5.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. He’s undersized as a four-man, but makes up for it in quickness and athleticism. Fulkerson and Pones against Drew Timme and Anton Watson will be a good battle. Pons started against Gonzaga two years ago and had seven points and six rebounds. You probably remember him as the guy who made Brandon Clarke famous.
5. Colbey Ross - Pepperdine (6’1 senior guard)
He may not get the love that major conference players get, but anyone who has watched Ross knows he’s just as talented as high-major guards. He leads all current players in the NCAA in career assists. He’s already broken the school record in that category and will break the scoring record with 24 more points. He’s made the All-WCC team in each of his three seasons in Malibu and averaged 20.4 points last year. He is *waves* ahead of all other non-Gonzaga players in the league, and could be the front runner for Player of the Year this season. In six games against GU, Ross has averaged 18.7 points on 50 percent shooting to go with 6.2 assists and 3.3 rebounds.
4. MaCio Teague - Baylor (6’4 senior guard)
Teague began his career at UNC-Asheville. After averaging 16 points both of his seasons there, he decided to transfer to a better program. After a redshirt year, he proved he wasn’t just a good mid-major player, but a great scorer against any competition. He started 28 games last season and was second on the team in scoring at 13.9 points a game. He was third in rebounds, third in assists, and had the fewest turnovers of any of their guards. If he elevates his 36 percent three-point percentage to the 43 percent it was in the Big South, he can be one of the more lethal guards in America.
3. Marcus Garrett - Kansas (6’5 senior guard)
The reigning Naismith Defensive Player of the Year looks to take another leap in his senior season. He’s already the best individual defender in the country, but now his offense has a chance to explode with the departure of Devon Dotson. Last season, Garrett stuffed the stat sheet to the tune of 9.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 1.8 steals. With Dotson gone, Garrett and Agbaji become the offensive leaders. It will be really interesting to see how Bill Self and Mark Few defend each other. Garrett and Agbaji, two proven veterans, will start with five-star freshman guard Bryce Thompson to take on Joel Ayayi and Corey Kispert, two proven veterans, and five-star guard Jalen Suggs.
2. Jared Butler - Baylor (6’3 junior guard)
The only more interesting match-up than the Kansas-Gonzaga back court is the Baylor-Gonzaga back court. After withdrawing from the NBA draft, the All-American Butler will look to build on an extraordinary sophomore campaign where he averaged 16 points, 3.1 assists, and 1.6 steals. The explosive point guard is on a short list of National Player of the Year front runners and with good reason. Butler and Teague are arguably the best backcourt duo in the nation this season, and if you add in Mitchell, that’s one of the best trios on any team in America. That group of three will square off with Suggs, Ayayi, and Kispert (and Cook) in what could be a Final Four preview in Indianapolis.
1. Luka Garza - Iowa (6’11 senior center)
This should be no surprise. Garza is the leading front runner for National Player of the Year after averaging 23.9 points and 9.8 rebounds as a junior. He finished last season at number one in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings. There are very few weaknesses in his offensive game. He can bully you inside with strength and footwork, he can step out and shoot, and he draws fouls at a high level. He does all of this while averaging 32 minutes a game. He is an absolute workhorse. Defensively, he’s certainly not going to win any awards, but he improved mightily throughout last season. Iowa as a whole has a long way to go on the defensive end, but just Garza’s presence can be enough to deter a drive. After talking a bunch about the exciting backcourt battles, it may be even more thrilling to watch a bunch of large dudes battle it out down low. Drew Timme and Oumar Ballo going up against Garza will be a sight to behold.