For the past two seasons, the Zags have been the No. 1 preseason AP team and a title favorite. The first year, the Zags made it all the way to the title game before Baylor had other things to say. Last year, the Zags were unceremoniously bounced in the Sweet 16.
This year, the Zags aren’t No. 1. They are just merely No. 2 and are one of four teams receiving first-place votes. College basketball is rather heavy at the top, and although the Zags are once again casually lobbed around as championship winners, this year, they will have plenty of competition.
With that, here are a few things to watch out for as the year progresses.
Where does Drew Timme land in the record books?
With two words back on June 1 via a tweet, Timme changed the trajectory for the Gonzaga hype train. One of the best big men in the game returned to college to cash in on NIL while he can, earning plenty of preseason accolades and setting himself up for a chance at history. In addition to leading the Zags to their potential first championship, Timme will finish his Gonzaga career somewhere amidst the all-time great scorers in Spokane.
Frank Burgess holds the record with 2,196 points scored. Timme currently has 1,521 points in a Gonzaga uniform. Timme averaged 18.4 points last season and 19.0 points two years ago. If he picks up that clip, even just a point or two, and Gonzaga makes a deep run in the tournament, Timme should finish his career as the Zags’ leading all-time scorer.
Who makes the most NBA Draft chatter?
Even after losing Chet Holmgren and Andrew Nembhard to the NBA Draft, much of the Zags’ lofty projections stem from the returns of Rasir Bolton, Timme, and Julian Strawther into the field. Eyes are on Strawther to see how he improves and builds upon his sophomore season. Strawther is a dynamic scorer and shooter and seemingly is all over the court at all times. Look for him to be even more aggressive this season attacking the hoop and demonstrating to NBA scouts that his wheelhouse isn’t simply as a catch-and-shoot player.
Strawther was bouncing all over NBA Mock Draft Boards last season, sometimes landing as a low first-rounder, a second-rounder, or not at all. He definitively has the skillset and the size to play at the next level, so let’s see what he can produce.
How do the young guys help carry the team?
This is an interesting squad in terms of experience. On one hand, you have veterans like Rasir Bolton, Anton Watson, Drew Timme, Julian Strawther, and Malachi Smith. We can even throw Dominick Harris into the mix since he has been around for so long. On the other hand, you have your young players you are looking to step up, such as Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis.
Hickman, particularly, might be the most important storyline to watch. The quiet point guard is a former low-five/high-four-star recruit and he performed rather nicely behind the tutelage of Andrew Nembhard last season. However, as the season progressed, Nembhard was on the court, a lot, and although Hickman was still bringing the ball up the court, Nembhard was the point guard running the offense.
The keys are in his hands now. The Zags have players who can help alleviate the load Hickman needs to carry, such as Bolton, but generally speaking, he is the lone true point guard on the team. It’ll be a quick learning curve for Hickman, who has shown he can handle pressure before. How well he performs very well could determine what comes next.
How does the defense hold up?
It has been evident through two exhibition games and with the KenPom preseason rankings. This Gonzaga squad will not go down in history as a tough defensive-minded team. KenPom ranks the Zags with the No. 1 offense (checks out) and the No. 26 defense, by far the lowest of the top 10 teams in his rankings.
Drew Timme is not a rim protector. His best defense is scoring more points than his opponent. Efton Reid can be, but also probably won’t see enough minutes this season to truly make a difference. For the Zags to make a deep run, they will have to deny dribble-drive penetration, and that will begin at the perimeter.
Things that might be working in the Zags’ favor: Watson, Sallis, and Harris. Watson’s versatility and overall basketball IQ mean teams can’t try and isolate him on a pick and roll and expect to do too much damage. Sallis was on the court last season trying to find his offensive consistency, but justifying the minutes because of his hustle on the defensive end. Coaches have long extolled the virtues of Harris’ defense before injury wiped him out last season.
The Zags lost Holmgren, a defensive menace they may never see again, to the NBA Draft, and will not be replacing him completely with Reid this season. That is no disservice to Reid as it is pointing out the hole Holmgren leaves.
Perhaps the biggest question for the Zags this season is how well the defense can come together, because that, more than anything, will dictate how deep of a run they make in March. Generally speaking, it makes sense that teams with elite offenses and defenses make the Final Four. That isn’t always the case (hello 2015 Wisconsin).
I would not expect after two exhibitions and practicing for a month that the defense is the finished product it will look like in March. The offense should be good to go. If the Zags are going to make a run, the defense will be the only thing worth watching.