(Editor’s note: This blog post makes several references to the Baylor-Gonzaga game scheduled for this past Saturday that was cancelled due to COVID cases in the Gonzaga program. The Zags have since shut down their program for an eight day period. The rest of the information still holds true.)
That’s a bold headline.
Saying that any team is comfortably better than the rest of the 300-plus teams in action in college basketball is always a little dicey. Saying it after just three games is nearly crazy. Making that statement this early in the season about the mid-major team I’ve been following and rooting for since childhood, well that’s downright suspect behavior. Doing it the day before they play the No. 2 team in the nation and thereby risking the chance I look like a true idiot here on my own blog? Well, you get the idea.
I understand all of that.
I heartily stand-by what I said. This year’s Gonzaga Bulldogs are the best team in school history and the best college basketball team in America.
Neither of those things are easy to come by. Mark Few has made the NCAA Tournament every year he has been the head coach at Gonzaga. He’s brought the Zags to nine Sweet Sixteens, three Elite Eights, and a National Championship game. There are only three schools who have been to more consecutive NCAA Tournaments than the Zags (Kansas, Duke, and Michigan State). Before last year (when Gonzaga was 31-2 and ranked 2nd in the nation before the pandemic forced a shutdown), the Zags had won an NCAA Tournament game in each of the last nine years. Only Kansas could best that streak.
Gonzaga is one of the premier programs in college basketball and, even compared to the highs it has reached previously, is peaking this season. The roster that Few has built is the most talented, deepest, and most efficient team in the nation. It’s built around four core players, all of whom came to Gonzaga in different ways.
The Four Year Star
The base of that roster starts with the kind of players Gonzaga has succeeded with in the past. Corey Kispert is a classic Gonzaga star. He’s a fourth-year contributor in his senior season, with 76 starts already under his belt. He was not highly regarded recruit and came from Gonzaga’s home state of Washington. Like many Gonzaga stars of the past, he developed his game within the flow of Mark Few’s offensive scheme, from a valued role player to a 20+ point per game scorer.
As a sophomore, Kispert was a complementary player. He attempted 4.4 threes per game, making a respectable 37.4 percent of those looks. He shot just 32 free throws over the entire 37 game season, drawing only 1.8 fouls per 40 minutes played.
In the two years that have followed, Kispert has grown into one of college basketball’s most efficient and effective players. That process started by making the strengths of his game even stronger. After shooting 36.5 percent on 277 attempts from long distance as a freshman and sophomore, Kispert has become a better shooter. He’s made 43.9 percent of his 198 attempts over the last two years, while shooting at a higher volume, from more difficult scenarios, and receiving more defensive attention.
The Corey Kispert of old was a standstill shooter. The Corey Kispert of 2020-21 demands a high ball screen so he can take (and drain) a pull-up 25 footer.
Beyond the growth in his shooting, Kispert has developed as a creator. He’s handling the ball better than he had in prior years and attacking off the bounce more effectively. In previous seasons, Kispert was frequently guarded by opposing big men due to mismatches with the Gonzaga’s frontline or off of a switch. He was generally unable to take full advantage of those match-ups, rarely scoring at the rim or earning trips to the free throw line.
According to data from Hoop-Math.com, Kispert took just 28.5 percent of his field goal attempts “at the rim” as a sophomore, compared to 68.5 percent of his shots coming from outside the arc. In the Zags’ first three games this year, Kispert is attacking more often, with 34.2 percent of his shots coming at the rim, compared to just 52.6 percent from long range. Perhaps most importantly, he’s gotten better at finishing when he is able to attack the paint. As a sophomore, Kispert shot only 61 percent on his 67 shots around the basket. He was often bothered by opposing length and size. This year, through just three games, Kispert has taken 13 shots at the rim and made 12 of those opportunities.
When faced with a switch or an advantage, Kispert is now a weapon for the Zags. Watch here as he attacks Kansas big man David McCormack and finishes in the paint.
When he’s not finishing, Kispert is drawing contact at much higher rates. His 1.8 fouls drawn per 40 minutes as a sophomore is up to 4.9 fouls per 40 minutes this year. His free throw rate has nearly tripled in two years, with his free throw attempts per 40 minutes rising from 3.1 to 5.7 since just last year.
The Developed Darling
Alongside Kispert in the Zags’ frontcourt is Drew Timme, another Gonzaga stereotype of recent years. Timme, like Domas Sabonis, Zach Collins, and Rui Hachimura before him in Spokane, is a big man capable of dominating in the low post or making plays in space. He flashed last year in limited minutes backing up Filip Petrusev, peaking with a 17 point dazzler in Gonzaga’s final game, the WCC Tournament final.
Petrusev left Gonzaga to pursue professional basketball in Europe, where he’s already found success. Playing in his native Serbia, Petrusev was named the October MVP of the Adriatic League, which has produced NBA stars like Nikola Jokic. It’s notable to mention Petrusev’s early professional success because one of the reasons he left Gonzaga has become more clear. Drew Timme is already better than Petrusev, who was the WCC Player of the Year and a second-team All American.
Timme was a top 50 recruit, coming out of Richardson, Texas. Few’s staff has been able to develop players like Timme into stars, but even by Gonzaga’s standards, Timme’s development and rise has been meteoric. In the Zags first three games, he’s posted 23.3 points per game. Any defender stuck alone on Timme has been dispatched with ease.
Timme’s low-post game is honed like a YMCA veteran. He has a bag of crafty moves, the feel for which way to turn or pivot, and is a legitimate 7-footer. On the block, he’s a terror:
On the perimeter, he’s sharpened his ball-handling skills and isn’t afraid to put the ball on the floor against slower big men.
Given space, which he’ll have a ton of thanks to his hot shooting teammates, Timme is difficult to stop. Send a second defender and there will be an open Zag ready to make you pay. He hasn’t yet showcased the ability to always find those open teammates, with just two assists through three games, but he hasn’t needed to do so. Even against teams with athletic, veteran big men like Kansas and Auburn, Timme has had his way around the rim.
The Eye-Popping Transfer
Gonzaga has built a reputation as a desirable landing spot for transfers. Kyle Wiltjer, Nigel Williams-Goss, and Brandon Clarke grew from good players at other schools to All-Americans under Few and his coaching staff,
When Andrew Nembhard announced he was leaving Florida, many programs were interested. In two years in Gainesville, Nembhard showed he was very talented, but never quite succeeded in the way many expected. After playing for Team Canada at the FIBA World Cup last summer, it’s no surprise that he settled on Gonzaga. Nembhard was teammates at that event with former Gonzaga standouts Kelly Olynyk, Kevin Pangos, and (also once a transfer) Kyle Wiltjer.
With other very impressive guards on the roster (more on them in a moment…), Nembhard’s role at Gonzaga was unclear. At Florida, he was the Gators’ primary offensive initiator, operating in a ton of ball screens. He showed himself to have high-level court vision, but was prone to mistakes and didn’t have the jump shot to really make sagging defenders pay.
Early in his time with the Zags, Nembhard has operated both as a point guard and as a secondary creator, looking more comfortable in both roles. Last year’s Florida team played at the nation’s 326th fastest pace, choosing to grind in the half-court, rather than pushing the ball in transition. Gonzaga is starkly the opposite, playing a top 15 pace this season so far, over 12 total possessions faster per game than last year’s Florida team. Nembhard looks like a fish skimming through a river after being stuck in the swamps in Gainesville (pun very much intended).
When Gonzaga’s offense showed its first (and to date, only) struggles against West Virginia, Nembhard rose to the occasion. He played 35 minutes and looked like the player Gators’ fans dreamed about for two years. Nembhard posted 19 points and 6 assists, sparking the Gonzaga offense out of a rut and into a win.
Gonzaga has had plenty of players like Nembhard in the past. Mark Few has not, however, ever had a fourth (or arguably fifth) option as potent as Nembhard. When Few’s offensive schemes or the Zags frentic pace gets stymied, Nembhard is a Swiss-army knife able to create offense and put the Zags back on track. That is a luxury few teams have coming off the bench.
The One-and-Done Stud
Another thing Mark Few has never had before this year? A top ten recruit who could play in the NBA after just one season in Spokane.
He does now, in the form of Jalen Suggs. The Twin Cities native nearly chose to play quarterback at Ohio State, before making the now seemingly brilliant decision to head to Gonzaga. In his first three games as a collegiate player, Suggs has been a force unlike anything quite seen before at Gonzaga.
Again, Few has coached stars. He’s had explosive players. He’s had good freshman and Player of the Year candidates. He’s never had all of those rolled into one package before Suggs. The level of talent Suggs brings to the Zags immediately raises their floor to new heights. Past Gonzaga teams needed to play, shoot, and defend perfectly to compete with the sport’s true blue bloods. They did so often. It was rare for a Gonzaga team to look totally outclassed in the last decade, but it did happen on occasion.
That is off the table with Jalen Suggs. He is a do-everything, two-way superstar at the college level. In three games this season, Suggs is averaging 13.3 points, 6.3 assists, 5.7 rebounds, and 2.3 steals in just 25.3 minutes per game. Those numbers don’t jump off the screen like they should, thanks in large part to a sprained ankle suffered against West Virginia (which the college basketball world feared would be far more serious until Suggs returned to the game). Even while limping through the second half, Suggs flashed in ways that showed how talented he is. Point guards don’t make blocks like this, no matter how many healthy ankles they have:
Against Kansas in his first collegiate game, Suggs was even more impressive. He was everywhere on both ends of the floor, making his most impressive plays in transition. He’s such a twitchy athlete that he can create his own transition opportunity at a moment’s notice:
In open space, there’s not many college players who can handle Suggs. This dunk is, again, not something most point guards have in their arsenal.
It is crucial to note that Suggs is a 6-foot-5, 205 pound point guard with the brain of a former quarterback. Whether he’s leading a fast break or slow-playing a pick-and-roll, Suggs is a high level passer with a top of the line basketball IQ. In his two games before spraining his ankle, Suggs was the catalyst of the fast-paced Zags’ offense and posted 14 assists against two power conference teams. Passes like this one to Joel Ayayi are not intuitive to most freshman. This is advanced pick-and-roll thinking:
And it’s important to remember, when he’s running pick-and-roll, his partner is usually the incredibly skilled and fleet-footed Drew Timme. There’s not a team in the nation with two defenders you’d bet on to stop Suggs and Timme when they are in the flow of a screen action:
Those four players make up the core of this juggernaut Gonzaga team, but of course, the Zags’ riches don’t end there. I haven’t mentioned 2020 WCC Tournament Most Outstanding Player Joel Ayayi, who is averaging 13.7 points and 7.7 rebounds this season. Or former top 50 recruit Anton Watson, who starts for the Zags. Or Oumar Ballo, who is Timme’s back-up and a 7-foot, 260 pound behemoth. Gonzaga’s roster is outright terrifying for most opponents.
For the teams who have lost to the Zags so far, it’s been a bear to stop all of Few’s weapons over a 40 minute game. Kansas and West Virginia both made their runs, but couldn’t plug every hole in the Gonzaga attack for long enough to keep a lead. Auburn had no chance from the opening tip. It’s crucial to note, by the way, the Zags’ dominance has come across three power conference teams, two of which are in KenPom’s top ten (the third is top 75).
Baylor on Saturday will offer Gonzaga’s toughest test of the regular season. The Bears may well be the second best team in the sport.
Gonzaga could lose to Baylor. The Bulldogs could lose to Iowa on December 19. They could have a nightmare game and lose to a conference rival.
More importantly, they could trip up in the NCAA Tournament. There are plenty of strong teams ready to take their crack at the Zags this season. Gonzaga likely has the best team in college basketball since the 2015 Kentucky team that won 38 games in a row to start the season. And yet, that team did not cut down the nets at season’s end. Being the best team in a sport with a chaotic single elimination playoff structure leaves no guarantees.
This is not Mark Few’s first title contending team. It’s not even his first time with the best team in the country. It is, however, his first time head and shoulders above the crowd. After over a decade in the national spotlight, that is no longer an achievement in Spokane. The Zags’ first time atop the AP Poll or as a top seed in March were exciting moments in and of themselves.
That time has ended. David has surpassed the army of Goliaths. It’s championship or bust for the Zags.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.