Thursday’s viewing schedule was set inside Claude and Mary Nembhard’s home in Aurora, just north of Toronto.
Youngest son Ryan and Montverde (Florida) Academy were up first, followed by oldest son Andrew and Gonzaga taking on Pacific.
The bonds of family and basketball are inseparable for the Nembhards. Claude coached Andrew’s teams throughout his formative years on the court. Ryan has followed in Andrew’s footsteps at prep powerhouse Montverde. He’s committed to Creighton.
“My dad has been a huge part of my basketball,” said Andrew, asked to name major influences in his life. “He coached me all way until the end of grade 10. My mom shaped me to be the person I am, instilled the values in me.”
Andrew wasn’t born with a basketball in his hands. That happened when he turned 1.
“Fisher-Price basketball set,” Claude said. “That was the best gift he got at the age of 1.”
By 3, Andrew was playing with 5-year-olds in an introductory league. After Andrew’s sophomore year of high school, the family made one of several decisions that eventually steered his career path to Gonzaga.
Claude coached at St. Andrew’s, a university preparatory school in Aurora. Chris Egi, who played at St. Andrews and is four years older than Andrew, went to Montverde and eventually played at Harvard from 2015-18.
“I was really close with Chris and his mom and really respected the family, and the fact they sent their son there was big because they didn’t want to send him away,” Claude said. “His mom recommended us to (Montverde’s) coaching staff.”
Andrew played his final two years at Montverde and blossomed on and off the court. His transition was easier with friends and fellow Canadians RJ Barrett (now with the New York Knicks) and Marcus Carr (junior guard at Minnesota) arriving at Montverde one year before Andrew.
“It made me play against higher-level competition from a younger age and got me used to the college game,” Andrew said. “It made me grow up a lot quicker than other 16-year-olds, having to do stuff by myself and becoming more of a man earlier.”
Nembhard developed into one of the top recruits in the country. Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd came calling, but Nembhard committed to Florida. Lloyd, meanwhile, noticed another intriguing Montverde prospect, Filip Petrusev, and the Serbian eventually became an All-American for the Zags before turning pro after his sophomore season.
Nembhard declared for the NBA draft after each of his two seasons as the starting point guard at Florida. He was actually closer to turning pro after his freshman year. He pulled his name from the draft and announced he was entering the transfer portal simultaneously last May.
“I called (Gonzaga) right when I went into the portal,” said Nembhard, who has experience playing on Canadian youth and national teams, the latter with former Zags Kevin Pango, Kelly Olynyk and Kyle Wiltjer. “It was definitely the first place I looked to, just watching them the last couple years at Florida.”
The timeline was perfect. Nemhbard could work on his body and game for a year as a sit-out transfer before taking over at point guard from freshman Jalen Suggs, a presumed one-and-done.
That was Nembhard’s plan – until it changed. The factors that swayed his mind included the NCAA making a habit of approving waiver requests to transfers and an opportunity to play on a team capable of winning a national championship.
“Coach (Mark) Few and Tommy brought up the possibility to me,” he said. “I opened up a little bit, but I was still on the fence. Honestly, it was a great opportunity to help the team win as many games as possible.”
Nembhard has been a sixth starter, as Few calls him, and averages 8.9 points and 4.6 assists. The 6-foot-5 junior leads the West Coast Conference and ranks 10th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.7).
Nembhard wasn’t watching in December when former Florida teammate and roommate Keyontae Johnson collapsed on the court versus Florida State, but “I woke up to a lot of messages about it.”
Nembhard cried watching the video. Johnson spent several days in a medically induced coma, but he’s made a steady recovery. He rejoined the Gators in essentially a coaching role.
“I was so happy to hear he was up and talking and back to being who he is,” Nembhard said. “I’ve talked to him a couple times. He’s the same old Keyontae, real goofy dude and we really make a lot of jokes and chill.”
The Zags would probably have at least one blemish on their record if not for Nembhard’s 19 points and six assists in an 87-82 win over West Virginia. He’s a smooth operator in GU’s ball-screen packages, which mesh with his high-level passing ability.
“He’s been huge,” GU assistant coach Roger Powell Jr. said. “The guys really like him and respect him as a player. He adds so much depth, another ballhandler. Andrew and AC ( Aaron Cook) just make our team better.”
Getting better isn’t easy for Gonzaga, given how high the record-setting offense has set the bar through 18 games. Nembhard said the players push each other in practice and “every game we go into we just work on ourselves. We set our standard, hold ourselves accountable.
“We understand that the best thing anyone on the team can do is help this team.”
The Zags have one collective goal.
“Unbeaten, I think that’s cool,” he said. “Winning the national championship is what we really want. However that happens is what we want to get to.”
His family will be watching, of course.
“We talk every day, regardless of whether it’s been a good or bad day,” Claude said. “He’s really enjoying his teammates, the coaching staff has them over. These guys are really close.”
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