In a coronavirus-delayed season that has seen some of college basketball’s bluebloods struggle — Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina have fallen out of the Top 25 together for the first time since 1961 — No. 1 Gonzaga just seems to keep getting stronger.
Despite the cancellation of a highly anticipated matchup against No. 2 Baylor in early December because of COVID-19 concerns, the Bulldogs (18-0, 9-0 West Coast Conference) have four victories against ranked teams. Added to that, they have three players — senior forward Corey Kispert, sophomore forward Drew Timme and freshman guard Jalen Suggs — who are among 20 finalists for the John Wooden Award as the player of the year.
“I don’t think anyone can beat Gonzaga,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said recently on his radio show. “I’ve never seen a team (so far ahead) since UCLA when John Wooden was there.”
The Bulldogs handily beat then-No. 3 Iowa (99-88), No. 6 Kansas (102-90), No. 11 West Virginia (87-82) and No. 16 Virginia (98-75) before West Coast Conference play began. They already have inspired talk of whether they can be the first team since Indiana in 1975-76 to go undefeated in the regular season and then win an NCAA championship.
Mark Few ‘Enjoying the ride’
“That’s getting a little ahead of ourselves, isn’t it?” Zags coach Mark Few told The Washington Post last week. “I mean, don’t get me wrong; we’re good. We’re talented. I really like coaching this team, and I think we’re tough to play against. But so is Baylor; so is Villanova; so is Texas; so is Michigan. The Virginia team we beat in December is not the Virginia team that Tony (Bennett) will put on the floor in March. Villanova’s probably got the best win of anyone — winning at Texas.
“But heck, this is fun. I’m enjoying the ride.”
Few, who got his 600th career win in the season opener, has won 19 WCC regular-season titles and 16 conference tournament championships in 21 years. Each of his past four teams have won 30-plus games, with last year’s team going 31-2 before the season was shut down before the NCAA Tournament in March. The Bulldogs reached the NCAA title game in 2017, losing to North Carolina 71-65 as the Tar Heels scored the game’s final eight points.
Few, who isn’t given to hyperbole, admitted this season’s team might be his best.
“Maybe,” he said. “We’ll see. That 2017 team was really good. We had size, depth and experience. That’s why we won 37 games.”
Gonzaga An Established Destination
Few said he believes that 2017 team took Gonzaga to another recruiting level.
Zach Collins (2016) and Austin Daye (2007) were the only previous top-50 national recruits to pick the Zags before they landed Timme and power forward Anton Watson in 2019. Suggs became the highest-rated recruit in program history last year, when he was No. 6 in ESPN’s Top 100.
Kispert is scoring a team-high 19.9 points per game, Timme averages 18.8 points and 6.8 rebounds and Suggs, considered a potential top-5 pick in this year’s NBA draft, adds 13.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists.
The Zags might have been even better this season if forward Filip Petrusev, who won conference player of the year honors last year as a sophomore, hadn’t decided to improve his NBA draft stock by playing professionally in his native Serbia. Petrusev leads the Adriatic League with 28.8 points per game.
Still, the Zags continue to roll.
“I wouldn’t say there’s pressure to maintain an undefeated record, it’s just the general pressure playing here,” Kispert said in a recent ESPN interview. “You get it from the people who come before you, the teams beforehand, you see the banners hanging up in our arena and in our locker room and there’s that kind of pressure. Whether that’s 33-0 or that’s 25-8, we’re just trying to be as good or better than the team that came before us.”
–By Gene Warnick (@GeneWarnick), Field Level Media