22 years ago, plucky upstart Gonzaga University began the 1998-99 season at Allen Fieldhouse facing a Kansas team coming off back-to-back number one seeds. The Bulldogs lost by 14. A few months later, Gonzaga would make their cinderella run to the Elite Eight. And now, 22 years later, in their second all-time meeting, the script has flipped. Gonzaga is the number one team in the country and favored to beat one of the Blue Bloods of the sport.
Just five seasons ago, Gonzaga was on the verge of missing the tournament entirely. Now they’re on the verge of a potential National Championship. Wouldn’t it be poetry if the 1999 team that started this whole journey began their season against Kansas and the 2021 team that wins a National Championship began their season against Kansas?
Well, let’s find out. Because it all starts on Thanksgiving Day. This game features the top-ranked team at the end of last season against the top-ranked team at the start of this season. Of course, many key pieces from both sides are gone. Gonzaga loses four double figure scorers. Kansas loses one of the best guards in the country in Devon Dotson and the best rim protector in the nation, Udoka Azubuike.
What to Watch
New Faces, New Roles
Mark Few and Bill Self will both rely on role players to make jumps and returning leaders to become elite. For Kansas, Marcus Garrett is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in college basketball, but can he become a better scorer? He played off the ball a lot because of Dotson. Is he ready to take over point guard duties? Can Ochai Agbaji, their leading returning scorer at 10 points a game, become more efficient? When Kansas needs a bucket, who becomes the go-to guy?
On the wing, Christian Braun returns and looks to continue his torrid pace from beyond the arc. He shot 44 percent off the bench last season and now moves into a starting role. David McCormack started 17 games a year ago, but now becomes the focal point of the front court. Bill Self said on Monday that McCormack may end up leading the team in scoring. The fifth starting spot and the bench guys are all unknowns. JUCO transfer Tyon-Grant Foster and true freshman Bryce Thompson are fighting for that final starting position, while the other will join Mitch Lightfoot as key bench players. Outside of them, their depth is full of question marks. The Kansas coaching staff seems to love redshirt freshman DuJuan Harris, but he’s yet to play a minute of college ball and they’re about to face the number one team in the country.
After Andrew Nembhard became eligible yesterday, the question for Gonzaga is how will the minutes be spread around? With an embarrassment of riches in the backcourt, does Coach Few just play the hot hands on any given night? Does this mean Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther are on the outside looking in? The Zags still have questions about front court depth, though that could be offset by more four guard lineups. Is Oumar Ballo ready to contribute 10-12 strong minutes a game? Drew Timme is due for a breakout season, but he has a formidable challenge in the 6’10, 265-pound McCormack, although he has a propensity to foul. Both teams wish they had rotation answers, but without any appetizers before the main course, they have to just dive right in.
Garrett might be the best one-on-one defender in the sport. Will he guard Jalen Suggs, Nembhard, Joel Ayayi, or Corey Kispert? With so many guards who are comfortable handling the ball, I’m not sure it makes a huge difference who he defends. Perhaps the biggest impact of Nembhard’s eligibility is that Suggs will have a ton of pressure taken off of him because of the veterans around him. He can let the game come to him and use his elite instincts and athleticism to affect the game in a positive way.
Traditionally, both teams love playing with two bigs. Self and Few are both masters at the high-low game. This season, neither team has two true big man who can play much together. Last season, for the first time in forever, both teams went to a four-out offense by necessity, and you’ll see a lot more of that this year, especially from Kansas. Even with the addition of Nembhard, I believe the Bulldogs will still start with Anton Watson at the “4” spot, and if Kansas starts Thompson over Grant-Foster, Watson will have a size mismatch on whoever guards him. If that does happen, on the other end of the court, Kansas will be playing four players all listed at 6’5”. Will Gonzaga be able to keep all of them in front and not allow consistent drives like we saw last season? When McCormack goes to the bench, Timme and Ballo will have a size mismatch inside. Can they take advantage of it? When Ballo is on the court against a bunch of guards, will he be exploited in pick-and-rolls? So many questions that are a day away from being answered.
Stuffing and potatoes can wait. This is the real main course.
#1 Gonzaga vs #6 Kansas
Time: Thursday, 10:30 am pacific
TV: FOX (Adam Amin, Bill Raftery)
Vegas Line: Gonzaga (-4.5)