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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: Joel Ayayi again shows he has a nose for the ball and a knack for helping Gonzaga win

UPDATED: Sat., Dec. 19, 2020

Gonzaga guard Joel Ayayi (11), who finished with 18 rebounds, gets in position as Drew Timme goes up for a layup against Iowa in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  (Associated Press)
Gonzaga guard Joel Ayayi (11), who finished with 18 rebounds, gets in position as Drew Timme goes up for a layup against Iowa in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. (Associated Press)
By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

In the Gonzaga drinking-game universe that chugs and refills every time Mark Few’s fishing jones is referenced by a TV announcer, there’s a new wince-worthy favorite working its way into the rotation.

It’s Joel Ayayi being a “nice fourth option.”

As compliments go, it sounds more backhanded than intended. Someone mentions “fourth option” and the likely free association is Zeppo Marx.

Also, it’s true enough if you buy the notion of sequential selection. The Gonzaga ensemble might demur.

“We’re so unselfish,” Ayayi’s guardmate Jalen Suggs offered after the Zags’ 99-88 beatdown of Iowa on Saturday, “it doesn’t matter whose night it is.”

Of course, it was Suggs’ night – or day – against the Hawkeyes, just as Drew Timme and Corey Kispert had their time Thanksgiving weekend down in Florida. They are, in commentatorese, options 1, 2 and 3 in respect to how the Zags harvest their points.

But it’s not where the fun stops, you know – and exhibit A, as opposed to the fourth option, is Joel Ayayi.

Speaking of the fun stopping, it isn’t.

Now the joke is that coach Mark Few should put the Bulldogs on another two-week hiatus, so dizzying were the results of the resumption in Sioux Falls.

Yeah, ha ha, no thanks.

The Zags need the work, and everybody else needs the entertainment.

The performance was slick enough and the birthing part when Suggs went off in the first half was downright dazzling. That the No. 3 team in the land didn’t get closer than eight points over the game’s final 28 minutes heaps another steamer trunk of expectation upon the Zags, who appear more than capable of handling the weight.

And the rust from the COVID-induced program pause? It was there. You could see it in 18 Gonzaga turnovers and a hinky showing at the free-throw line. You could see it on the defensive end, where the Zags kitchen-sinked it trying to contend with Iowa’s Luka Garza and couldn’t keep Timme, Kispert and Anton Watson on the floor much due to fouls.

Then again, the Zags did come up with the only stretch of stops either team got – 4½ shutout minutes in the first half that changed the game.

There was also a moment there, between Suggs 3s, illustrating Ayayi’s art – and value – when he rebounded an Iowa miss and his outlet found a streaking Andrew Nembhard for two of GU’s 18 fast break points.

And one of Ayayi’s 18 rebounds on the day.

That’s an outsized number, even for a giant. The 6-foot-11 Garza had an applaudable 10, the 6-10 Timme nine. That Ayayi goes 6-5 and a soaking-wet 180 pounds makes it – and him – something else altogether.

Here’s one easy conclusion: He’s the best rebounding guard in Gonzaga history.

“Oh, yeah,” Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd agreed. “Nigel (Williams-Goss) was a good rebounding guard and we’ve had others, but to go and get 18 in a No. 1-vs-No. 3 matchup? That’s pretty impressive.”

Thirteen other Zags in history have had 15 or more rebounds in a game. None played guard, and all were taller than 6-8. Last year, Ayayi was second on the team with a 6.3 average; at the moment, he’s over 10.

Being the best rebounding guard is not like, say, being the best pass-catching tackle or best hitting left-handed reliever. Possessions count. Rebounds limit theirs and extend yours. Ayayi’s knack is especially crucial to these Zags, who often as not play with just one true big man in the lineup.

And a knack it is.

“His nose for the ball,” Lloyd said, “is a super unique thing and something we’ve been able to count on.”

Just not the only thing. He’s an adept passer (he and Kispert led the Zags with six assists Saturday), defender and scorer – most notably on well-timed back doors and flashes to the rim. He’s also a worker who adds another recommendation to Gonzaga’s developmental reputation.

“You have to remember he came here when he was 17 – he should have been at Gonzaga Prep that first year,” Lloyd said. “He just wasn’t at the level to be a high Division I player, but even then he did two things we noticed.

“He had a nose for the ball – rebounding and pursuing and somehow, for not being uber-athletic, being able to come up with balls in traffic. He’s also an uncanny cutter off the ball.”

Those are nuanced skills that are bound to get lost amid Suggs’ theatrics, Kispert’s 3s and Timme’s post work. Nonetheless, Lloyd said, “everything in his game has gotten better.”

And now, presumably, that the Zags are past their pause, they can devote more time to making everything in their game better. Which is a little frightening. After all, they’ve now handled No. 3 Iowa, No. 6 Kansas and No. 11 West Virginia – who are otherwise 20-0.

They seem to be a team with all the options – one through four, and beyond.

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