One mark of a great team is the ability to beat other great teams. Gonzaga took the first step toward proving why it deserves that label Saturday night, cruising past No. 5 Texas 86-74 to collect its 53rd consecutive win at McCarthey Athletic Center and its first against a top-five opponent since the building opened its doors in 2004.
But if the 2021-22 Bulldogs wish to be held in the same regard as their predecessors, this week they’ll have to demonstrate another trait past Gonzaga teams have carried. That is, not allowing their play to soften when the schedule does.
It can be easy to peek ahead, especially knowing what’s on deck for Gonzaga more than a week from now in Las Vegas, but the top-ranked Bulldogs (2-0) will have to resist that urge this week as they welcome Alcorn State (0-3) and Bellarmine (0-2) to the Kennel on Monday and Friday. Both games will tip off at 6 p.m. and air on KHQ.
On three different occasions last season, the Bulldogs faced a short turnaround after playing a nationally ranked opponent. Gonzaga followed a 102-90 season-opening win over No. 6 Kansas with a 90-67 rout of Auburn less than 24 hours later. The Bulldogs took down No. 3 Iowa 99-88 in South Dakota before pummeling Northwestern State 95-57 in Spokane two days later. Then, after handling No. 16 Virginia 98-75 at a neutral-site location in Texas, Gonzaga returned home to thump Northern Arizona 88-58.
Expectations haven’t changed in 2021-22. At first blush, the Bulldogs seem to be as well-rounded as they are talented, with a healthy blend of proven veterans and hungry freshmen. Gonzaga deployed two different starting lineups and a variety of combinations in its exhibition games, but the rotation shrunk in the season opener against Dixie State and predictably shrunk again during Saturday’s matchup with Texas.
While the Longhorns went nine players deep and used only one underclassman, Devin Askew, a sophomore guard who got 15 minutes off the bench, the Bulldogs were much younger in contrast with two underclassmen – sophomore Julian Strawther and freshman Chet Holmgren – in the starting lineup. Freshman guards Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis were two of the three GU players who got bench minutes, along with Anton Watson.
Predictions of a Gonzaga return to the Final Four are contingent on productive minutes from the team’s freshmen and not only Holmgren, the nation’s top recruit and a projected NBA lottery pick.
Hickman, who played 29 minutes in his second college game, scored seven points on 2-of-3 shooting and connected on a key 3-pointer for the Bulldogs in the second half, drawing postgame praise from coach Mark Few.
“Nolan’s a tough guy, he’s kind of an old soul. I like that about him,” he said. “He’s just rock solid and that’s why you can see, second game of his career, we had him in down the stretch for the last 10 minutes. That shows you the trust we have and he’s kind of built to win. I think he showed also how steady and solid he is.”
The contributions Sallis made in five minutes on the floor were more visible on the defensive end, where the Nebraska native recorded two steals, hopping on a loose ball in the first half before stripping Texas guard Courtney Ramey just minutes later.
Sallis and Hickman could see their minutes crank up this week as Gonzaga faces Ken Pomeroy’s 333rd rated team in Alcorn State before playing No. 192 Bellarmine. Alcorn State is on the final leg of a four-game Pacific Northwest road swing that started in Pullman last Tuesday with an 85-67 loss to Washington State. The Braves lost 69-66 at Seattle U. on a buzzer-beater before falling to Portland 62-58.
After Gonzaga, the Braves’ nonconference schedule – comprised only of road games – continues with games in Illinois (Southern Illinois), Wisconsin (Milwaukee), Louisiana (Tulane), Texas (Houston), Kansas (Wichita State), Oklahoma (Tulsa), Texas (Baylor), Oklahoma (Oklahoma) and Minnesota (Minnesota).
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