For the second-straight year, the Gonzaga Bulldogs enter the college basketball season as the top team in the preseason polls. The hype train has left the station and this team is on its way to a Final Four and possibly cutting down the nets in April.
With all of that said, although there are some familiar faces on the team, or at least familiar facial hair choices, the 2021-22 Gonzaga Bulldogs are a completely different team from the 2020-21 Zags. Gone is Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs, and Joel Ayayi. In their place arrive a stellar recruiting class featuring the likes of Nolan Hickman, Hunter Sallis, Kaden Perry, Ben Gregg (sort of), and of course, Chet Holmgren, the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2021.
With basketball sort of right around the corner, let’s take a look at some of the storylines to watch with this year’s Zags.
Will Drew Timme be Player of the Year?
After a season in which Drew Timme grew a Fu Manchu, developed approximately 100 celebrations, and averaged 19 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, Timme didn’t waste a second of time to declare he was coming back to Spokane for his junior year. The gregarious big man from Texas was a Second-Team All-American and won the Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Award, a phenomenal achievement for someone who spent most of his time in the five spot. He also won the KenPom Player of the Year, an unofficial award with no trophy.
Timme might average a few more points and a few more rebounds, but since there is no more Luka Garza in college basketball, he is officially the best big man in the country until further notice. With the addition of Chet Holmgren in the mix and his ability to spread the floor, Timme should have even more room to dance with his dazzling footwork in the post.
Enjoy the Timme campaign this year, but we very well could be watching the second Gonzaga player capture the national player of the year award honors, following in the footsteps of Adam Morrison in 2006.
Who does Gonzaga lose to?
The Zags were painfully 40 minutes short of equalling history last season with an undefeated run through college basketball. Even though the hype is just as high to start this season and the Zags return some key pieces to the mix, there are a lot of new and young faces in this crowd. Ten of the 17 players on the roster are freshmen or sophomores. Of the seven veterans, one is new to the team (Rasir Bolton), one plays minimally (Martynas Arlauskas), and two are walk-ons (Matthew Lang and Will Graves).
In Dana O’ Neil’s fantastic profile, the perpetually underselling Mark Few quote probably had more truth than his early year blanket statements do:
Last year, we could tinker around with stuff, throw it out the day of practice, change it during practice and they’d be fine. This year, you feel like you’re behind. I don’t know that we are, but you just feel it.
The Zags’ non-conference slate is a bruiser, featuring multiple contests against preseason ranked teams in Duke (No. 9), Alabama (No. 14), Texas (No. 5), and UCLA (No. 2). Texas Tech (receiving votes) is also in the mix.
There is a chance that the Zags roll through the non-conference slate undefeated. Crazier things have happened in this world, as the past 18 months can attest to. However, with the level of youth in the ranks, the Zags will probably showcase their growing pains throughout the season. In a close game against a top-ranked team, that could be the difference between a win and a loss.
Is this the beginning of the Julian Strawther era?
In an absolute perfect distortion of raw stats to support a point: If you extrapolate Julian Strawther’s 3.5 points per game last season to 40 minutes, he averaged 24.5 points per game. With a senior Corey Kispert occupying the wing for most of the season last year, Strawther was always going to have a hard time getting minutes. This year, the gap in the roster is there, and Strawther might be the certified bucket-getter to take hold.
There were displays of that prowess occasionally scattered throughout last season. He scored 12 points in eight minutes against Portland and 11 points in 10 minutes against San Diego. Strawther averaged 31 points per game his senior year of high school. The guy can flat-out score. Although this will not be his team this season, keep an eye on the stepping stones as he earns more minutes this year.
Does Chet Holmgren earn the No. 1 pick in the draft?
The Zags unicorn freshman is the No. 1 player in the Class of 2021, but he might not end up the No. 1 player in the 2022 NBA Draft. With nothing but a bunch of thoughts to fuel the mock drafts at the moment, Duke freshman Paolo Banchero is landing at the top spot a bit more often, with a familiar caveat: He is the safe pick, but Holmgren is the higher ceiling.
Throw in the G League’s Jaden Hardy into the mix, and those three players will probably rotate amongst the top three spots each week just based off who had the better game over the past seven days. Either way, Chet Holmgren has a real chance to be the highest-drafted Zag since Adam Morrison (No. 3 in 2006) and might end up even higher than that.