I have never picked Gonzaga to win the National Championship prior to the season. While filling out brackets in March, I’ve only picked them to win it all one time and that was two years ago when they fell to Texas Tech. Even the 2017 team I had losing the National Title game to North Carolina (really wish I was wrong on that one...). I would not have picked them this past March either.
That all changes this year. Gonzaga is my pick to win the National Title and I say it with absolute confidence. Barring injuries, they have the most complete roster and the highest ceiling of any team in college basketball. They have explosive guard play that Gonzaga teams rarely have and that you need to win in March, while still having a dominant post presence. This is by far the most athletic team they have ever had and their versatility is off the charts. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there’s something about this season that screams “this is Mark Few’s time.” The last seven years, this program has gone from good to elite and this feels like it’s finally the moment.
Now that I’ve got you way too excited, let’s talk about what to watch for this season. Obviously, the number one issue is Covid-19. That goes without saying and I don’t want to dwell on that reality in this article. There will be cancelations, I’m sure, but college basketball will chug along as best as possible. All of these bullet points are strictly things to watch on the court.
1. The Rotation
Realistically, all 11 of Gonzaga’s available scholarship players have an argument to get minutes this season. Unfortunately, several of them will be relegated to the bench. Jalen Suggs, Joel Ayayi, Corey Kispert, Anton Watson, and Drew Timme is going to be the likely starting five. Aaron Cook is going to be the first guard off the bench. In all likelihood, Oumar Ballo will be the backup center. That’s your core seven. We all know Mark Few loves to cap his rotation at seven or eight players when January and February roll around, but he does make exceptions when it’s warranted. The 2013 team that leapt to number one for the first time in school history had 10 players average double digit minutes and Few kept a nine-man rotation throughout the postseason. Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther are both ready to play right now. Harris is an active defender and an energizer bunny. Even if his jumper isn’t working quite yet, he can certainly earn minutes on the other end of the court. Julian Strawther’s scoring ability and versatility can be plugged in right away for any program in America. The question now becomes: how many minutes do those two guys get? With no cupcakes prior to Kansas, Few may just go with who he trusts the most and only play those core seven guys in the opener before expanding. A lot of the rotation may have to do with lineups.
2. Small Ball
If Drew Timme and Oumar Ballo can’t function very well together, or Julian Strawther is not ready to play heavy minutes right away, Gonzaga will play a good amount of small ball. You saw glimpses of it last season when Kispert slid to the “4” and you’ll see that same thing this season. They still run their ball screens, but with slight variations. Gonzaga has never had a guard and wing rotation as good as they will have this year. Cook, Suggs, Ayayi, Harris, Strawther, and Kispert can all get downhill in a hurry. They’re all explosive, strong, and finish well at the rim. Most Gonzaga teams the last decade have played through the post, and to some extent, they still will when Timme is in the game. But don’t be surprised if you see this team adapt to a lot more perimeter drives than ever before because of their personnel.
3. Three-Point Shooting
Gonzaga has two weaknesses on paper. Their backup bigs are completely unproven, which we knew heading into the season. The other weakness is their lack of proven three-point shooters. Matthew Lang is the third leading three-point shooter from a year ago with a whopping four triples. Watson, Timme, Martynas Arlauskas and Pavel Zakharov combined to hit four threes a year ago. Cook hit three long balls in the six games he played at Soithern Illinois before getting injured. Suggs has been an inconsistent shooter his entire FIBA career. Harris went 0-for-7 at Kraziness in the Kennel. Strawther is a slasher. Ballo is probably jealous of Przemek Karnowski’s 1-for-3 career from beyond the arc.
All of this is to say: somebody needs to step up and consistently knock down jump shots. Killian Tillie, Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge hit 113 threes last year while shooting 39 percent combined. How can they come close to matching that? Cook shot 36 percent his sophomore and junior years, but averaged just a hair over one made three a game, which puts him on par with Woolridge. Can Watson and Timme combine for 40 made threes to replace Tillie? Can Suggs and Harris knock down 45 to replace Gilder’s production? Can they all do it efficiently enough where defenses have to respect them and not pack in their defense like San Francisco and UT Arlington tried to do a year ago?
And does it really matter? Gonzaga consistently ranks in the bottom half to bottom third in the country in three-point attempts. Only one time since KenPom starting tracking data in 2002 has Gonzaga scored more than 30 percent of their points from beyond the arc, and that was Zach Norvell’s sophomore year in 2018. Since he left, the last two years, they’ve scored 26 percent of their points from deep, which is 300th in the nation. Their bread and butter is scoring the ball in the paint, and it feels likely they do the same this season. As long as Kispert continues to shoot above 40 percent, Ayayi takes another step forward with his shooting, and the newcomers shoot even remotely efficiently, I don’t think it will be a major issue. But it is certainly something to watch and probably the thing I worry about that nobody mentions much.
There will be no fans pretty much all season long at every venue. Teams may get a sparse crowd here or there, but the players will have to bring their own energy to games. This doesn’t just affect the Zags at home, but also on the road. They seem to thrive on raucous away crowds trying to tear them down. Their ability to feed off that and then shut up that crowd by the end of the game is always fun for the players. Without that, it will be interesting to see how teams play. 8-0 runs may feel like just a normal 8-0 run instead of a 16-0 run because fans have a tendency to make that hole feel worse than it actually is. Theoretically, it levels the playing field a bit. Perhaps related, but maybe not at all: Coming into Week 10 of the NFL season, road teams had a winning record over the home squads.
5. Triple Double Watch
Joel Ayayi had six games last year with 6+ rebounds and 6+ assists. His second game of the season season, he had eight points, 13 rebounds, and five assists. On twitter, we started speculating that this dude could get a triple double by the end of his Gonzaga career. The closest he came was a 21 point, 12 rebound, six assist game against Southern Miss. He also had an 11/10/6 line against North Carolina and 15/6/7 against Arizona. He had 10 rebounds in a 16-minute scrimmage at Kraziness in the Kennel last week. If he can squeeze out 10 assists in a game, something only Josh Perkins has done in the last decade, then he’s got a real shot to do this thing. Heck, throw Jalen Suggs in there, too. He’s a good enough rebounder that he may toy with the possibility, too. Likely? No. A backstory that’s fun to watch when Gonzaga plays Idaho and Dixie State? Absolutely.