21 months after their last game in a packed Kennel, the Gonzaga Bulldogs enjoyed the opportunity to play in front of a real crowd again en route to a comfortable 34-point victory over Dixie State.
It only took a few minutes of action to realize this is a completely new season and a completely different team than last year’s edition. The Zags had three freshmen on the floor after the first media timeout, weren’t threatening the bottom of the net from the three-point line, but already had the makings of a defensive juggernaut.
Drew Timme notched the first basket of the season and after a Dixie State turnover Chet Holmgren scored on the following possession. College basketball’s preseason player of the year and the number one recruit in the Class of 2021 laying down a marker in the first minute of the season? If you asked most Gonzaga fans how before this game tipped off how they would like the season to start, they’d probably describe an opening sequence just like that one.
It was a dream start, but reality also hit soon. Gonzaga’s offense is not quite up to the level it was at the start of last season. Of course, few teams can reach that standard, and this team is young and will have some growing pains over the next few weeks and months. What was impressive, however, was just how stifling Gonzaga’s defense played in the opening 15 minutes. Even accounting for the level of opposition (no offense to Dixie State), all the ingredients for a championship caliber defense were on full display.
The backcourt has the length and athleticism to apply serious ball pressure, and with Holmgren (and Anton Watson) patrolling the back end they will be emboldened to play aggressively. Holmgren, for his part, was as advertised with 7 blocks to go with 6 assists, 13 rebounds (6 offensive), and 14 points while picking apart Dixie State’s zone defense. It says a lot about Holmgren’s unique skill set that the broadcasting crew was already discussing his prospects of picking up a quadruple double sometime this season after just 15 minutes of collegiate basketball.
The absurd stat lines that Holmgren will put together this season will be fun to monitor, but how quickly this new group coalesces and learns to play Gonzaga’s brand of basketball will be the key to another Final Four push. Shooting 2-13 from the three-point line with 11 turnovers in the first half is not the brand of offensive basketball that they’ll be looking for. That will be a work in progress, but for now the Zags can rely on their defense to generate transition opportunities while they sharpen their offensive actions.
An 11-0 run in less than two minutes during the second half right after Dixie State cut its deficit to 10 points with 14 minutes to play showcased just how devastating Gonzaga’s quick strike offense can be. Of course, that run was powered by a defense that easily manufactured turnovers and defend the rim. If Gonzaga can maintain that level of intensity over prolonged periods of time, a more viable possibility with the depth of the roster this season, they will be one of the toughest teams to play in the country. They’ll have to pass some sterner tests though too. The first one will come on Saturday.