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Gonzaga lived up to the Zags’ standard Tuesday Night

Gonzaga is the Elite Program in College Basketball

NCAA Basketball: Good Sam Empire Classic-Gonzaga at UCLA
No. 1 Gonzaga routed No. 2 UCLA 83-63 in Las Vegas Tuesday night to win the Empire Classic. The match-up was a highly-anticipated rematch from the Final Four.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Well, what do you know? Gonzaga is pretty good at basketball. Even after losing four starters from last year’s team and two lottery picks at that, Gonzaga cemented itself as the top dog in college basketball by dismantling No. 2 UCLA 83-63 at T-Mobile Arena on Tuesday.

It was one of the most highly anticipated regular-season games in recent memory for many reasons. It was a huge matchup between the two best teams in college basketball, a rematch of one of the most memorable Final Four games and Dickie V. made his return courtside after a series of cancer treatments.

It was the second time the Zags have dismantled a preseason top-5 team in a week. Gonzaga routed Texas in front of its home crowd 86-74 on Saturday.

While we are used to Gonzaga’s offense shining, the defense put on a clinic. Coming into the game, UCLA’s offense was averaging over 90 points per game and ranked inside the top-five in offensive efficiency. Gonzaga held the Bruins to 34.8% shooting and 2-14 from 3-point land.

When UCLA came out swinging, Gonzaga’s freshmen sensation Chet Holmgren provided the answer by blocking three shots in UCLA’s first 10 possessions.

The matchup between UCLA and Gonzaga was never in doubt after the 10-minute mark in the first half. UCLA tried to test the Gonzaga defense inside early but was still in single digits at the midway point of the opening half.

In addition to Holmgren’s dominance inside, Drew Timme also provided defensive pressure, showing major improvement from the last meeting between these two teams. He tested the NBA draft waters this summer, and his struggles defending on the perimeter was one a major criticism of his.

“Everyone wants to talk about adding three’s to Drew’s game,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “What he showed was he could move his feet and guard. Drew and Chet are doing a good job.”

Timme finished the game with 18 points, but he shot just 1-6 from the first half. Despite that, Gonzaga built a 20-point halftime lead behind Holmgren and Andrew Nembhard.

Nembhard killed UCLA in transition, outrunning the UCLA transition defense for open lay-ups. He leads all scorers with 24 while shooting 9-13 from the floor.

“I consider him the best player every night,” Few said of his point guard. “Having the best point guard in the country makes it easy on us because we can efficiently run our stuff, and we know we are going to get what we want to be done. We don’t have to call a lot of stuff cause Andrew has a great understanding of the game.”

Nembhard may be the most underappreciated piece on the Zags roster. The Zags had a loaded frontcourt going into the season, but replacing the guard production of Joel Ayayi and Jalen Suggs was an intimidating task for anyone. Nembhard came off the bench for Gonzaga last year after starting two years at Florida.

In addition, Gonzaga freshmen Hunter Salis and Nolan Hickman flashed potential off the bench. Even after losing Suggs, guard play won’t be a problem for Gonzaga this season.

Holmgren rebounded from a 3-point performance in the last showcase game against Texas. He was involved in the offense early by dominating with his back to the basket and stretching the floor with his shooting. He finished with 15 points on 6-8 of shooting.

The Zags’ blowout win may be a big statement win to the college basketball world, but they don’t view it that way.

“We didn’t send a message,” Timme said. “We prove to ourselves that we can live up to the Zags standard. We don’t prove stuff to people. We prove it to ourselves, and we did a good job today.”

With the win, Gonzaga cemented itself as the top team in the country. Unlike last season, there doesn’t seem to be a team like Baylor, who can serve as a “1B team.”

What’s next for Gonzaga?

On Black Friday, the Zags will play another marquee matchup against No. 5 Duke also in Vegas. Gonzaga is a seven-point Ken Pom favorite against Duke. The Zags have a chance to make history by becoming the first team to beat three AP top-five teams by double digits in a single month. Additionally, it pits Few against the legendary Mike Krzyzewski as well as Holmgren against fellow top prospect Paolo Banchero.