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Three thoughts from Gonzaga’s first game as No. 1

The Bulldogs blew out the Bison and looked like the top team they are, even without one of their key players.

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Gonzaga
Gonzaga guard Geno Crandall brings the ball up the court against Texas A&M earlier this month.
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Monday was a bittersweet day for the Zags. In the morning, it was all excitement when the AP and Coaches Polls came out and both had Gonzaga ranked at the top. By late afternoon, that excitement had been dampened considerably when the school announced that reserve point guard Geno Crandall would miss four-to-six weeks with a fractured right hand.

First, it was Killian Tillie, sidelined for up to two months with a stress fracture in his foot. Which the school announced just before the start of the season. Now, just before proving themselves worthy of a No. 1 ranking, it’s Crandall. There have been luckier Zag teams, that’s for sure.

Once game time rolled around though, the excitement and anxiety each faded as the Bulldogs got down to business against the Bison. Gonzaga won easily, 102-60.

Here are three thoughts from Gonzaga’s first game this season as the No. 1 ranked team in the country.

Say it ain’t so, Geno.

In July the Zags landed North Dakota grad transfer Geno Crandall. It was huge, as Gonzaga was seriously lacking in point guard depth behind Josh Perkins. Over the first few games of the season, Crandall hasn’t been exceptional, but he’s been a veteran presence who has looked composed and controlled against even the most intimidating of teams.

Behind the Zags pair of senior lead guards are a pair of freshmen: Greg Foster Jr. and Joel Ayayi. Coming into tonight those two had played for 37 minutes combined. Tonight they went for 32.

Foster looked to be the choice to step into Crandall’s role as back-up point guard. The freshman from Milwaukee checked into the game with 5:46 remaining in the first half, joining Zach Norvell (15 points), Corey Kispert (17 points), Rui Hachimura (18 points) and Brandon Clarke (18 points) on the floor. This wasn’t garbage time, and Foster was the lone point guard in the game for Gonzaga.

His meaningful-minutes debut wasn’t huge — two points, four rebounds, five assists and just one turnover — but he played for 20 minutes and looked composed enough. Head coach Mark Few, though, kept his poker face after the performance.

Few didn’t seem certain that Foster, who he referred to as a work in progress, would be the guy to fill Crandall’s shoes.

“We’ll see what we get out of anybody and everybody,” Few said.

No. 1, again.

Gonzaga has been ranked No. 1 in the polls before, but this time is different. When Gonzaga ascended to the top spot in 2013, and then again in 2017, we were deep into the season. The top teams were dropping games as Gonzaga rolled through West Coast Conference competition.

Not this time.

Well, the top team did lose a game. But, that team lost to Gonzaga. The Zags opened the season higher than ever in the AP Poll (No. 3) and within four weeks had risen to No. 1. College basketball writers, finally, trust and respect this program enough to rank it highly early in the season.

Amazingly, the people who seem to be disrespecting the program the most now are the students. Here’s a look at Gonzaga’s famed but fading student section, the Kennel Club, early in the second half.

It’s half empty.

There are plenty of readers who disagree with us covering Gonzaga, because they claim Gonzaga isn’t a mid-major. Perhaps this is the best argument you can make. Newly minted No. 1 in the country, but the student section is so spoiled by success that they start filing out of the arena at halftime. This isn’t a good look.

North Dakota State was a much-needed tune-up

Gonzaga earned its No. 1 ranking after three straight big, tough wins in the Maui Invitational. Their next four games come against top-50 KenPom teams: at Creighton, home against Washington, Tennessee on a neutral and then at North Carolina. All over the course of two weeks. Brutal.

So, tonight’s game against the North Dakota State Bison was surely welcome respite from the gauntlet the Zags are running.

Gonzaga flexed offensively, dishing out 25 assists to just eight turnovers. The Zags’ 15 threes (on 28 attempts) fell one short of the McCarthey Athletic Center’s all-time record (h/t Brenna Greene). It was a clinic.

Defensively, too. Gonzaga held forced eight turnovers in the first half and converted those into 16 points. That’s 2 points per possession, and that’s really freaking good. North Dakota State’s offense never found its rhythm, as the Bison were held to two assists.

This game could not have come at a better time both for the players, who needed to adapt to life without Crandall, and for the fans, who risked cardiac arrest watching this team play in Maui.