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Grading the Zags Through the Non-Conference Slate

Stellar marks across the board.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Gonzaga Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Gonzaga Bulldogs closed the books on probably one of their wildest non-conference schedules in school history, and are taking an undefeated 9-0 record into West Coast Conference play.

In the process, the program, like many others around college basketball, navigated a shutdown and game cancellations due to COVID. At the end of the day, the Zags are still the No. 1 team and own four wins over AP top 20 teams.

Scheduling on the Fly: A

I’d give this an A+ if Mark Few and Scott Drew were ever able to figure out a way to get that game on the docket, but with both programs dealing with COVID issues at different times, it seemed just a bit too hard.

That said, the Zags did an excellent job completely repackaging their original non-conference slate, and honestly, probably ended up playing a better one. Gonzaga’s non-conference strength of schedule is one of the best in college right now, and the Zags became the first team in history to defeat four AP top 20 teams in their first seven games.

Looking back at the original schedule, the Zags essentially missed out on playing three Tier 1 teams: Tennessee, Texas, and Texas Tech. Michigan State was supposed to be the jewel of the Orlando Invitational, but they have sputtered.

Instead, Gonzaga snagged wins over Kansas, West Virginia (thanks Huggy Bear), Iowa, and Virginia. That is a diverse range of styles of play and exactly the challenge needed for a championship mindset squad.

And, when COVID took away a chunk of December, the Zags got creative, playing two sets of back-to-back games at home to get the reps in.

Living Up to Expectations: A+

Gonzaga was the preseason AP No. 1 team in the nation and has slowly solidified their lead, eating into Baylor’s first-place vote totals. Baylor received 24 first-place votes in the preseason AP Poll. This week, it was just two.

The Zags are the No. 1 team in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, owning the No. 1 offense and the No. 18 defense. They dropped 102 points on Kansas in the first game of the season.

The preseason expectations for this team were national title conversation. Acknowledging that Baylor is still in the mix and is also a very good team, it is not unfair to be title-or-bust-mindset this season. That is how much a cut above the rest Gonzaga is from all of college basketball (maybe not Baylor).

Sure, Gonzaga is probably not invincible. The defense still needs a bit of work. At the end of the day, the Zags are 9-0 and still the No. 1 team. If that doesn’t earn an A+, I’m not sure what does.

The Stars: A+

If we are taking the stars of this squad as Corey Kispert, Drew Timme, and Jalen Suggs, you’d have to work hard to find something to be critical about. In a year in which Luke Garza was the de facto POY, Kispert has aggressively moved into that conversation and up the NBA Draft Boards in the process. The senior Zag is leading the team with 21.1 points per game and shooting an absurd 51 percent from beyond the arc. All the while, he is showcasing a development of his overall basketball game that probably none of us thought was possible his freshman year.

Drew Timme is doing exactly what we all expected him to: grow a mustache and celebrate. There was a reason why most people in the fanbase didn’t fret too much when Filip Petrusev left to play professionally in Europe. Timme is averaging 19.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, shooting 61 percent from the floor. His footwork and overall feel for the post is a beauty to watch. The one “weakness” in roster construction comes at Timme’s position, and his ability to stay in the game and avoid foul trouble, for the most part, has helped the Zags hold onto that No. 1 spot.

As for Jalen Suggs, this was the first field goal of his collegiate career. Of course, things are going swimmingly. Suggs has demonstrated that he is a complete player. If he is not knocking down 7-of-10 from long range (Iowa) he is generating four steals (Virginia). Suggs has been so impressive, he is even generating No. 1 pick chatter on the national level. Hopefully, his current leg injury is a minor issue and we can watch him decimate WCC foes.

The Supporting Cast: B+

Andrew Nembhard as a member of the “supporting cast” is a sign of how Gonzaga’s roster is so loaded. Nembhard started for two years at Florida, and after a surprise waiver, immediately hit the ground running this season. In fact, it not for Nembhard, this grade might be a tad bit lower. Having Nembhard in the fold allows Mark Few to do essentially whatever he wants with the lineup because there is basically a college-ready point guard always ready to go.

Joel Ayayi is, of course, doing Joel Ayayi things. He is the leading rebounder on the squad, averaging 7.8 per game. The past two games against Dixie State and Northern Arizona hopefully boosted Ayayi’s outside shot confidence as well. Ayayi shot 16.6% from three-point range through the first seven games and raised that to 37% over the last two games.

Although Aaron Cook is having less of an impact than many of us expected at the start of the year (thanks to the Nembhard waiver), he is a lock down defender and a senior leader. Teams would love to have a player like Cook in their starting lineup, let alone coming off the bench.

The supporting frontcourt has been a bit of an up and down. I am a massive Anton Watson fan and think he does not get enough recognition for his contributions on the court because they often extend beyond the box score. That said Watson had been inconsistent to start the year, often looking a bit lackadaisical and lacking the killer instinct he would display on the next play. The coaching staff “benched” him to start the second half of the first Northwestern State game, and since then, Watson has looked locked in. Just a bit of coaching was all it took.

The biggest knock on the supporting cast comes at the hands of Oumar Ballo, and perhaps this is just a knock against our own unrealized expectations. Coming into the year, most of us (probably) were expecting a bit more from Ballo. He looked great against Dixie State, but that is Dixie State. He still is only averaging 8.6 minutes per game and oscillates between looking OK for five fouls and looking completely lost on the court. He has talent, no doubt, but Ballo definitely needs seasoning before he makes an impact.

The Bench: Undetermined

We’ve been blessed with the past two weeks to see bursts of Julian Strawther, Dominick Harris, and little snippets of Pavel Zakharov and Martynas Arlauskas (and Ben Gregg now I guess). Strawther’s length looks like he will be a terror when he puts it all together. Harris might be one of the most tenacious backcourt defenders we’ve seen in a while. Zakharov and Arlauskas still need a bit of work. That said, we missed out on a lot of what these guys get to offer because of COVID. Strawther and Harris were holed up in Florida for longer than anyone wanted. Zakharov and Arlauskas were absent from the home games against Northwestern State, and although the school didn’t say anything, with COVID running through the program it is a fair chance their absence was related to that.

In a normal year, we would have seen 6-8 home buy-in games against competition that allows Gonzaga to run deeply into the bench. This year, we had four. The future is bright, no doubt about that, but at this point, it seems unfair to make a grade off of such a small sample size.