One of them boasts the odds-on favorite to win national player of the year, along with the country’s top recruit. The other counters with a group of high-level transfers – six of the nation’s top 31, according to an offseason list compiled by ESPN.com.
The coaches have appeared in three of the past four national championship games.
If that wasn’t enough to persuade a neutral fan to turn on their television set Saturday night, the teams involved enter with a combined AP ranking of No. 6 – something that was only matched by one other game (No. 2 UCLA vs. No. 4 Villanova) during college basketball’s opening week.
After obliterating lesser opponents in their respective season openers – Gonzaga stomped Dixie State by 35 points while Texas put a 44-point beating on Houston Baptist – the top-ranked Bulldogs and fifth-ranked Longhorns should learn plenty about themselves when they meet at 7:30 p.m. at McCarthy Athletic Center in one of the marquee nonconference matchups of the 2021-22 campaign.
That said, if given the option, Mark Few and Chris Beard may both petition for more time in order to cram for the season’s first real test.
Gonzaga coaches have repeatedly stated their concerns about the Bulldogs’ lack of experience, with only four returning players who played meaningful minutes last season. Texas, meanwhile, lists 11 upperclassmen on its 2021-22 roster, including eight seniors.
“We’re very much a work in progress,” said Few said, who’s returning to GU’s bench after a three-game suspension stemming from his DUI arrest in September. “I think last year we probably could’ve played an NCAA Tournament game on Nov. 1. I felt like we were probably ready for that. … I think this year, it’s going to be a real journey of learning because we have six new guys who we’re counting on to play. I don’t think I’ve ever had that as long as I’ve been here.”
It’s all relative of course. The first thing Beard pointed to when asked to describe what makes Gonzaga so potent? Experience.
“When you think about the makeup, they have four returners from last year’s undefeated-all-the-way-to-Monday-night-national-championship-game team,” Beard said earlier this week. “Those returners are experienced guys, and one of the returners is the preseason college basketball player of the year, (Drew) Timme.”
Timme, Andew Nembhard, Anton Watson and Julian Strawther combined to play 2,649 minutes last season. Among rotational players, Texas has only two returners, Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones, who combined for 1,656 minutes in 2020-21.
Texas’ players are experienced, just not experienced together.
While college basketball teams undergo change every year, the Longhorns stretched that to the limit last offseason, bringing in seven transfers along with a completely new coaching staff. Gonzaga should be vaguely familiar with Beard’s system – the Bulldogs lost to his Texas Tech team in the 2019 Elite Eight – but scouting the Longhorns has been a tiresome process that’s required Few and his coaches to spend time studying a variety of teams, most of them not named Texas.
Point guard Marcus Carr (19.4 ppg, 4.9 apg, 4.0 rpg) comes to Austin from Minnesota. Small forward Timmy Allen (17.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg) transferred from Utah. Power forward Christian Bishop (11.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg) joins the Longhorns after three years at Creighton. Another forward, Vanderbilt transfer Dylan Disu (15.0 ppg, 9.2 rpg), came from the SEC, as did former Kentucky guard Devin Askew (6.5 ppg, 2.9 apg). Tre Mitchell (18.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg) found his way to Austin after two years at UMass.
“You look at what they were like at Texas Tech and it’s compiling a lot of data based on speculation, too,” Few said. “We’ve only got real game of them and that was Tuesday just like us.”
“It’s a lot of moving parts,” GU assistant Brian Michaelson said. “They have players that played a multiple different schools, I guess six or seven, so you’ve got to watch their individual clips and what they did at those schools. You’ve got to guess a little bit how that’s going to go into the Texas system. You’ll have (Tuesday’s) game, so you’re kind of balancing what happens (Tuesday) at Texas with coach Beard’s success at Texas Tech. So there is a lot of compilation of film.”
Texas coaches may have a few more data points on Gonzaga, but Beard suggested the Longhorns are dealing with many of the same obstacles the Bulldogs are. Gonzaga’s opted to deploy a lineup that includes just two returning starters, Timme and Nembhard, along with one returning reserve, Strawther, one transfer, Rasir Bolton, and one freshman, Chet Holmgren.
Junior sixth man Anton Watson is a well-known commodity, but two of the other subs who figure to get significant time off Gonzaga’s bench are freshmen: guards Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis. If a fourth sub gets onto the floor, it’ll likely be another freshman, forward Kaden Perry.
“I know this year’s team, I like their balance between returning and new,” Beard said. “They’ve got the four players that played on last year’s special Monday night team.”
There’s some familiarity on both sides, beyond the 2019 NCAA Tournament matchup between Few’s Bulldogs and Beard’s Red Raiders. Bolton, an Iowa State transfer, scored 15 points in a loss to Texas Tech last season, four days after scoring 10 against Texas. He played four games against the Longhorns and Red Raiders the season prior.
“I’m pretty used to what they’re going to do,” Bolton said. “Press up, be aggressive, use their length. They’re a good basketball team, so it’s going to be a good game.”
While Beard was a first-time head coach at Fort Scott (Kansas) Community College, he tried to recruit current Gonzaga assistant Stephen Gentry, a Fort Scott native who ultimately chose the Bulldogs.
“His final two schools were Fort Scott Community College and Gonzaga the way I remember,” Beard said.
Beard made a strong push to bring Timme to Lubbock, Texas, before the Richardson Pearce High product chose Gonzaga. Timme, the preseason national player of the year and reigning Karl Malone Award recipient, foreshadowed how the game could play out.
“They’re an old team, they’ve got a bunch of veteran guys and they’re smart,” Timme said. … “They’re going to come in here and not play around and they’re going to get after it. But that’s what we do. We like the challenge, we’re ready to get punched in the mouth and they be better be ready, too.
“It’s going to be a fun brawl.”
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