2019-20 Record: 31-2 (15-1 WCC), WCC Champions
Key Returning Players: Corey Kispert (F, Sr.), Joel Ayayi (G, RS-Jr.), Drew Timme (F, So.), Anton Watson (F, So.)
Key Losses: Filip Petrusev, Killian Tillie, Admon Gilder
Key Newcomers: Jalen Suggs (G, Fr.), Aaron Cook (G, Sr., Southern Illinois), Oumar Ballo (C, Fr.), Julian Strawther (F, Fr.), Dominic Harris (G, Fr.)
I’m thinking back to this time last year and laughing about how naïve I was. I really went into the 2019-20 season thinking the Gonzaga Bulldogs were in for a down year. I wasn’t alone, either. Mark Few was tasked with replacing his top four scorers and would have to rely heavily on a guy with a history of injuries (Killian Tillie), a sophomore who played 11 minutes per game as a freshman (Filip Petrusev), and a transfer from North Texas (Ryan Woolridge).
Naturally, Gonzaga went 31-2 and would have had a realistic chance of winning the 2020 national championship had the NCAA Tournament actually been played.
Never underestimate Mark Few.
This year, I’m not making the same mistake. As our rankings indicate, Gonzaga is the best team outside of college basketball’s main power structure. The Bulldogs also have a damn good case as the best team in the entire sport.
Key non-conference games:
Nov. 26 vs. Kansas
Nov. 27 vs. Auburn
Dec. 2 vs. Tennessee (the Vols are currently shut down due to positive COVID-19 tests within the program, so this game is in serious doubt)
Dec. 5 vs. Baylor
Dec. 19 vs. Iowa
3 things to watch:
That non-conference schedule is a freakin’ gauntlet. Kansas, Baylor, and Iowa are all legit top-10 teams. Tennessee might be one too. The easiest game of the above is against an Auburn team that lost a ton from last year, but Gonzaga will have to navigate that one the day after playing Kansas. Oof. Make no mistake: Gonzaga is good enough to win each one of those games, but Few is throwing Jalen Suggs, his freshman point guard, into the fire immediately. Suggs is a McDonald’s All-American who scored nearly 3,000 points in high school and already has three gold medals to his name in FIBA competition, so he can probably handle it.
Still, there won’t be a huge margin for error this year. With abbreviated schedules and cancellations inevitable, the selection committee is going to have to do a lot of work with smaller sample sizes. If only a couple of the above games get played, they become much bigger for the Bulldogs than their power conference counterparts. BYU and Pepperdine should be solid, but there won’t be many opportunities for quality wins. It’d be a shame if the season opener on Wednesday is the difference between a 1 and 2 seed for Gonzaga, but the Bulldogs need to play like that’s going to be the case.
The entire freshman class
Suggs gets all the attention, and he’s earned every bit of it. He’ll probably be the only freshman in Gonzaga’s starting lineup, and as the Bulldogs’ highest-ranked recruit ever, should only be in Spokane for a year. But not only are the other Gonzaga freshmen talented, the Bulldogs will rely on them off the bench.
Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther were both four-star prospects, ranked in the top 65 of their class, per ESPN. Harris is a 6’4 athletic specimen, and as a score-first guard, he can get to the basket or hit threes. The 6’7 forward Strawther, meanwhile, averaged 31.5 points per game as a senior in high school to go with 11.1 rebounds. Few told the Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook that Strawther came to campus in phenomenal shape and that he is further along than Few expected.
Oumar Ballo is a redshirt freshman and should also provide a lift with the other newcomers. He’s 7 feet tall and supposedly has some touch for a guy of his size and experience level. Gonzaga isn’t all that deep in the front court, so expect Ballo to get his share of opportunities.
If you’re making a list of things to watch, the team’s best player should be on it, especially if he’s also on the All-Mid-Major Madness Preseason First Team, right? Kispert was as integral to Gonzaga’s “surprise” success last year as anyone, starting all 26 games and upping his scoring average from 8.0 points per game to 13.9. He did that by shooting 44% from three and 81% from the line — both good for top 10 in the WCC. The in-state product turned down a shot at the NBA this offseason to try one more time to deliver a championship to Spokane. Last year, he had to be something of a bridge between the old guard at Gonzaga and freshmen, sophomores, and transfers. This year, he’s in a similar position with the talented freshman class around him, plus guys like Drew Timme, who has been here before but will be asked to do so much more. Few seems comfortable with the fate of the team in Timme’s hands, telling Blue Ribbon:
“He was kind of the holdover to kind of help us get a lot of these guys through. To kind of shepherd that makeshift squad to 31 wins and two loses, I mean, he deserves a lot of credit.”
Not enough has been made about the transfer from Southern Illinois. Cook played just six games last year before an injury forced him to sit the remainder of the season, but he scored in double figures in all six of those games and handed out an average of 3.3 assists in the process. He led the Salukis in assists each of the previous two years and was beginning to establish himself as a lethal scoring threat. With the ultra-talented Suggs getting the bulk of the minutes at point guard, Cook will probably come off the bench, but he’ll be able to provide a steady hand and nice jumper. That could come especially in handy in the opening weeks when Gonzaga has to play its toughest games of the season.