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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Major tests arrive early on Gonzaga’s front-loaded nonconference schedule

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 5, 2020

Gonzaga guard Joel Ayayi drives inside against North Carolina defenders during a Dec. 2019 game at the McCarthey Athletic Center.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga guard Joel Ayayi drives inside against North Carolina defenders during a Dec. 2019 game at the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

It underscores some of the uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that just 58 of 357 Division I basketball teams have released schedules with season openers less than three weeks away.

Gonzaga’s schedule has been edited numerous times, but one thing has remained nearly the same: The Zags aren’t exactly tiptoeing into the season.

Gonzaga typically opens with an exhibition game and a few overmatched opponents before facing the marquee matchups on its nonconference schedule. The fireworks arrive early this season with a Nov. 25 opener against Kansas, followed quickly by dates with Auburn, Tennessee and Baylor.

Baylor is No. 1, Gonzaga No. 2, Kansas No. 5 and Tennessee No. 20 in Kenpom.com’s ratings. Auburn is No. 66.

“The difference between this year and years’ past is that there’s no tuneup games,” senior wing Corey Kispert said. “We have to be ready to go from the first minute of first game.”

Gonzaga’s original plan was to open at home against North Carolina Central on Nov. 10 before visiting Texas (No. 9 in Kenpom) and facing USC (No. 48) in Portland. The NCAA did away with scrimmages and exhibition games when it announced the season would start on Nov. 25 instead of Nov. 10.

The Zags debuted last season with an exhibition game against Lewis-Clark State College and home dates with Alabama State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and North Dakota before visiting Texas A&M. Two years ago, GU began with an exhibition vs. Central Washington and routs over Idaho State and Texas Southern.

The Zags haven’t faced a formidable foe in a season opener since the 2015-16 season. GU-Pittsburgh was called off at halftime because of slippery floor conditions in the Armed Forces Classic in Okinawa, Japan. The Zags roughed up Eastern Oregon in an exhibition contest prior to traveling to Japan.

“Coach (Mark) Few does a great job every year to schedule the tough nonconference schedule,” Zags junior guard Joel Ayayi said. “We just want to play the best, no matter where or when. Especially early in the season anybody can get anybody, so that will be really interesting.”

The caliber of competition in the first 11 days of GU’s schedule puts added importance on preseason practices and staying healthy during the pandemic.

“This year more than last year there’s a huge maturity aspect,” Ayayi said. “We’re still college kids, and we love to have fun and see our friends and be able to enjoy the college life, but we can’t really do that. That maturity that our leaders need to have and share all the way down to the freshmen is pretty important.”

Marquette, Fordham, Cal, Toledo, Duquesne, Fresno State, Wyoming, Albany and James Madison are among the programs that have paused practices due to positive COVID-19 tests or potential exposure to the virus.

“On the court, things are pretty much the same for us players,” Kispert said. “Off the court, how often we’re able to hang around different players, different people, being smart with our social time and who we see is one of the huge challenges of the leadership part for this year.”

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