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10 Observations from Gonzaga’s win over UCLA

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NCAA Basketball: Good Sam Empire Classic-Gonzaga at UCLA Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The Gonzaga Bulldogs have made a habit of owning Feast Week, and Tuesday night’s dominant win over UCLA was another feather in their cap as the program continues to push past all the expectations and standards born out of the constant success in the last two decades. It shouldn’t be that easy to knock off the #2 team in the country, but somehow, the Zags made it look like they were playing a buy game against a directional school rather than college basketball’s most decorated program and a preseason favorite to return to the Final Four.

  1. It is absolutely incredible that in a game between UCLA and Gonzaga, it was the latter that had the far better athletes on the floor who could simply overwhelm the opposing team. No one would have believed that sentence 25 years ago.
  2. Andrew Nembhard was spectacular. It felt like it could be a special night for him when he was hunting his shot early and those shots were falling. That assertive approach forced UCLA to stay home on him rather than sagging off to take away passing lanes, which opened things up for his teammates. You can tell how much his teammates enjoy playing with him because he’s so good at making their lives easier. Nembhard made his case for the title of best point guard in the country, as he was masterful at reading the floor, consistently made the right decisions, and was unflappable in the face of pressure as UCLA grew desperate to turn the tide during the game.
  3. The UCLA frontcourt lacked the horses to bottle up Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren. I’m sure they were salivating over the prospect of attacking Holmgren on the low blocks, assuming they could simply overpower him considering the size and craftiness of Myles Johnson and Jaime Jaquez Jr. That didn’t work out for them because it turns out Chet is plenty strong. Chet knows how to handle himself down there, and his length is so absurd that he can still bother a shot even if moved off his spot. Also, Cody Riley would not have changed the outcome of this game.
  4. Gonzaga’s speed and ball movement made the Bruins look like they were playing in slow motion during the first half. UCLA constantly looked two steps behind as the Zags blitzed them with pressure, jumped passing lanes, crushed them in transition, and generated open shot after open shot in the halfcourt. It was not a replay of the Final Four matchup.
  5. Hunter Sallis built on the momentum he created for himself over the last week+ with another eye-catching performance off the bench. It wasn’t fancy dunks or acrobatic finishes at the rim either, but high energy and aggressiveness on the defensive end and on the glass that made his performance stand out.
  6. Anton Watson has found himself in foul trouble in two of the last three games after fouling out against Bellarmine in just 12 minutes of action. He had to sit for most of the second half after picking up an early fourth foul. Some of the fouls were dubious, but he’s a crucial piece to the puzzle for the Zags and he needs to be better at not giving the referees the opportunity to whistle him up.
  7. We’ve been saying it all season, but Gonzaga’s ability to suffocate opposing teams with its defense is what separates it from last season’s group and will be its calling card all year long. Seeing how the Zags defended a team they played just seven months ago with many holdover players really underscored the difference. Of course, the Bruins also couldn’t repeat the absurd number of jumpers that they made in April, which felt like an outlier at the time and looked even more so after this game.
  8. It is hilarious to me that Mick Cronin’s gripe with his team is that they have been overly focused on shotmaking rather than defense during the opening weeks of the season, which manifested itself in Tuesday night’s beatdown. Perhaps, Mick, if you helped out your team with some semblance of an offensive system that didn’t rely solely on Juzang and Jaquez isolating 30+ feet away from the rim and hopefully making something happen, they wouldn’t be singularly focused on how to score enough points to keep up with the most efficient offensive team in the country. Cronin has always built his teams on defense, but you have to help your kids create easier offense for themselves too.
  9. Drew Timme finished the first half shooting 1-5 from the field with 2 turnovers, and the Zags still dominated UCLA. I don’t think there’s another team in the country who could survive that type of output from a National Player of the Year candidate on their roster and not miss a beat.
  10. As fun as this game was, I think the best part of the evening was Dickie V’s opening monologue in his first game back since his cancer diagnosis. His voice (and cornucopia of tag lines) has been an essential piece of the college basketball experience both for myself, and I’m sure many others, since he hit the airwaves back in 1979. It was so lovely to have him on the call for one of Gonzaga’s marquee games, to hear his enthusiasm about basketball and the incredible athletes on the floor, and to once again partake in his love of life. There is no one quite like him.

If you are able and so inclined, here is a link to make donations to the Jimmy V Foundation which directly supports research against all forms of cancer.