In the next month, preseason No. 1 Gonzaga is scheduled to face No. 6 Kansas, No. 12 Tennessee, No. 2 Baylor and No. 5 Iowa on neutral courts, provided COVID-19 doesn’t interfere.
Those games should rank among the best in college basketball in the first month of the season. The same goes for the individual matchups within those games. The Zags, who boast four players on the Naismith Trophy watch list, will encounter several of the best players in college basketball.
Here are the top five, in order, from Gonzaga’s top nonconference dates. We checked in with Baylor grad assistant and former Gonzaga walk-on Rem Bakamus, who is well versed in three of the five on the list.
Luka Garza, Iowa
The 6-foot-11, 265-pound senior center is probably the best big in college basketball. Garza was the only unanimous selection on the preseason AP All-America team. He’s the front-runner for national player of the year after finishing runner-up last year to Dayton’s Obi Toppin.
Garza is a scoring machine. He already ranks 12th on Iowa’s all-time list with 1,559 points. If he maintains or comes close to his 23.9-point average last season, he would overtake No. 1 Roy Marble (2,116) if the season goes ahead without too many interruptions.
Garza has size, strength, countless moves in the lane and a midrange jumper. The three-year starter hit 39 3-pointers last season at a 36% clip.
He averaged 26.2 points in the Big Ten, which would have had 10 teams in the 2020 NCAA Tournament, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s final projection. He scored 44 points against Michigan, which thumped Gonzaga in the Bahamas, and 33 in the rematch. He had 25 and 28 in two games against Illinois, 38 versus Indiana and 34 against Penn State.
“He’s a guy that’s got a ton of different moves,” coach Fran McCaffery told reporters after Garza’s 44-point game. “He never stops moving, he sprints hard in transition and posts hard.”
Jared Butler, Baylor
The 6-3, 195-pound junior guard made the preseason AP All-America team – the first in school history – and he’s on the Naismith watch list.
Butler hit seven 3-pointers and scored a career-high 31 points against Kansas as a freshman. His 77 3-pointers and 16.0 scoring average led the team last season. He was second in assists (94), steals (49) and 3-point accuracy (38.1%). He’s started the past 50 games.
“He’s a point guard, but we play him off the ball a lot because Davion Mitchell is also really good as a point guard,” said Bakamus, who is in his third season with the Bears. “Jared is very dynamic offensively with the ball in his hands or coming off screens in pindowns and shooting. He’s really bought in defensively.
“Great leader, super unselfish, great person.”
Marcus Garrett, Kansas
Garrett, the only one on this list who didn’t declare for the NBA draft, impacts the game at both ends of the court. The 6-5, 195-pound senior was named the 2020 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.
“He’s one of the better players in the country,” Bakamus said. “He doesn’t have to score to affect the game. He’s so versatile on defense, super fast. Because he’s so good on defense, he doesn’t get enough credit offensively. It seems like he’s going to slide over to point guard and you’re going to see a lot of his tools offensively.”
Garrett’s numbers – 9.2 points, 4.6 assists – should climb as he takes over at point with Devon Dotson’s exit to the pros. He averaged 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals last season and led the Big 12 in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.7).
“He’s really good at getting downhill, really quick first step,” Bakamus said. “One of the best defenders in the country. He can switch onto bigs, really handsy.”
MaCio Teague, Baylor
The 6-4, 195-pound senior is another playmaker in the Bears’ talented, versatile backcourt. He’s made 92 career starts, counting his first two seasons at UNC Asheville. He was two-time, first-team All-Big South and was second-team All-Big-12 last season.
He led the Bears in minutes (32.6 per game) and free throws made (89), attempted (106) and accuracy (84.8%). He produced 13.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists. He drained 60 3-pointers last season, second to Butler’s 77, and he’s made 41.2% of his career attempts behind the arc.
“He can play on the ball and off the ball,” Bakamus said. “We play two point guards (often Butler and Mitchell), but sometimes he ends up with the ball and he has free reign to create off the bounce. Really good shooter, so he helps our floor spacing.”
Teague was on a roll late in Big 12 Conference play, averaging 16.6 points in a seven-game span, before breaking his wrist. He returned after missing just two games.
“Super tough kid and a great leader,” Bakamus said.
Yves Pons, Tennessee
It was a coin flip between Pons and forward John Fulkerson, but we gave the nod to the bouncy 6-6, 215-pound Frenchman because he’s an elite defender. He was named 2020 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, the first to win the award in school history.
Pons, who is on the Naismith Trophy watch list, equaled the school record with 73 blocks and drew a team-leading seven charging fouls. He swatted at least one shot in all 31 games. He made major strides on offense, bumping his scoring from 2.2 to 10.8 points and his rebounding average from 1.8 to 5.4. He hit 30 3s after making just nine in his first two years combined.
“I have to push all my game to another level,” said Pons, shortly after deciding to return for his senior season. “Either defensively or offensively, I think I have a lot of stuff to show. That’s why I’m here. I can show people I can do more.”
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