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Gonzaga takeaways: Seven-foot freshman Chet Holmgren reaching new heights

Gonzaga forward Chet Holmgren hauls in one of his 17 rebounds in Saturday’s rout over BYU at the Marriott Center.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

There’s only one name left in front of Chet Holmgren on Gonzaga’s single-season blocks list.

That would be Brandon Clarke, who shattered the program record with 117 swats in 2019, 47 more than Austin Daye’s mark in 2009. Holmgren is at 73 blocks after rejecting five shots in Saturday’s 90-57 road victory over BYU.

That’s not the only list Holmgren is scaling rather quickly at Gonzaga and on the national level.

More on the Zags’ freshman phenom, how Saturday’s domination compared to Gonzaga’s impressive wins over then top 5 Texas and No. 2 UCLA and more on the reeling Cougars in our latest GU takeaways.

Holmgren puts on a show again

The 7-foot Holmgren has been stacking up strong all-around performances since WCC play began a month ago, but he’s reached 20 points in four of the last five games. He only did that once in the first 16 contests.

His rebounding has been steady throughout his freshman season, but he’s averaged 14 over the last five games to bump his season average to 9.2.

“He’s the presumptive No. 1 pick in the NBA draft for a reason,” BYU coach Mark Pope said. “He’s actually showing better than that. He’s shooting 64% from the 3-point line (actually 60% in WCC games) as a 7-1 guy and he’s owning all the space around the rim, so it can be really frustrating getting downhill and then he just cleans up all the mistakes.

“What’s really nice for the Zags right now is they’re able to exert so much pressure on the perimeter, take so many chances because they’ve got him covering for him behind.”

The 6-10 Pope played six seasons in the NBA, so he’s well-versed on quality bigs. BYU’s third-year head coach started his collegiate career at Washington before finishing up at Kentucky. He was a second-round draft pick in 1996 played for Indiana and Milwaukee before wrapping up his NBA career in 2005 with Denver.

“He moves his feet well, he’s a real problem,” Pope continued. “He’s a ball-screen guy you kind of have to pick your poison. You’re either going to not switch him and give up a 64% 3-point shooter or you’re going to switch and you’re going to have an undersized issue, which we had three times in the lane with him.

“He’s a real talent. He continues to prove the doubters wrong. I think coming to college, people said, hey we’ll just have to beat him up and maybe the game will be too physical, but it’s not. He’s responded in a great way and I think he’s a really, really special, maybe a generational player in terms of how unique he is. He’s proving it every night now.”

Holmgren has moved into the top spot in Evan Miyakawa’s player rankings. Holmgren is followed by Drew Timme at No. 2, Anton Watson at No. 4 and Andrew Nembhard at No. 11.

In KenPom’s player of the year ratings, Holmgren is second behind Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe.

Roughing up top-tier opponents

The Zags added another convincing win over an opponent with solid credentials. Gonzaga led by 30 in the first half against BYU en route to a 33-point final margin.

Gonzaga has several candidates for its most impressive performance of the season. The list includes Texas, which trailed 47-27 at halftime in an 86-74 loss at the McCarthey Athletic Center on Nov. 13.

Gonzaga took apart then-No. 2 UCLA in Las Vegas, building a 29-8 lead before the midpoint of the first half. The Zags led 45-25 at intermission and retained a 20-point margin at the final buzzer.

The Zags handled No. 25 Texas Tech 69-55 in a defensive-minded game in Phoenix in December. The Red Raiders have been on a roll for the last six weeks, climbing to 14 in the last AP poll.

“I don’t know (how Saturday’s showing compared to wins over ranked foes), but we had a great DER (defensive efficiency rating) at half and I was really happy with that,” coach Mark Few said. “Obviously it was much better because we gave up two 3s at the end of the half. You have to be on point and have good attention to detail to guard BYU like that.”

“It was up there,” sophomore wing Julian Strawther said. “I didn’t even know we went on a run like that until I looked at the score and I was like, ‘Dang, we really jumped ahead.’ It was just effortless basketball, just playing Gonzaga basketball, not forcing shots, and making things simple.”

Slumping Cougars drop to sixth

BYU has faded from being projected as Gonzaga’s toughest challenger to sixth place in the WCC. A four-game losing streak has dropped BYU’s record to 5-5 in conference, just behind San Diego (6-5).

The Cougars slipped to No. 45 in the NET rankings after residing in the mid-20s just a few weeks ago. BYU is hanging on to a spot in the NCAA Tournament field as one of the last four in, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s latest projections.

“This has really hurt us in terms of the tournament, but our destiny is still in our control,” Pope said. “Our team has full power and full control over our future and that’s a great place to be. Belief is everything and right now we’re questioning ourselves and that’s the truth.”