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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Gonzaga-Santa Clara takeaways: Bulldogs’ offensive surge has been keyed by season-high assist totals

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 16, 2022

Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Rasir Bolton (45) moves the ball against the Santa Clara Broncos during the first half of a college basketball game on Saturday, Jan 15, 2022, at Leavy Center in Santa Clara, Calif.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Rasir Bolton (45) moves the ball against the Santa Clara Broncos during the first half of a college basketball game on Saturday, Jan 15, 2022, at Leavy Center in Santa Clara, Calif. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – At the risk of omitting any of the historical anecdotes or offensive nuggets that came out of Gonzaga’s 115-83 rout of Santa Clara on Saturday, here were a few more milestones the Bulldogs reached at the Leavey Center.

According to statistician Ken Pomeroy, Gonzaga has registered the highest scoring average by a team in its first three conference games since 1997. At 114.0 points per game, GU’s scoring average is higher than the No. 2 team on that list, 1998 LIU Brooklyn (104.0), along with No. 3 Kansas, which averaged 103.0 ppg in 1998.

And a Santa Clara-specific anecdote: since Herb Sendek became the Broncos’ coach in 2016-17, Santa Clara’s allowed its single-game season high points total every year. Gonzaga scored 89 points in 2021, 104 in 2020, 89 in 2019, 101 in 2018 and 90 in 2017. An opponent will be hard-pressed to top the 114 points GU scored at the Leavey Center on Saturday.

“Obviously it goes without saying that we lost to an outstanding team, a team that’s clearly in contention for the national championship and they played very well today,” Sendek said after the game.

Below, we dive into Gonzaga’s high assist numbers in the last three games, Rasir Bolton’s thoughts on the success of his former team and the cases for both GU and Auburn taking over the country’s top ranking come Monday morning.

Assists galore

Before West Coast Conference play began, Gonzaga’s season-high for assists (26) came on Nov. 15 against Alcorn State. Three games into the league slate, the Bulldogs have already matched that number twice (26 against Pepperdine and Santa Clara) and topped it once (28 against BYU).

Gonzaga’s shot-making, and in particular the shot-making of junior forward Drew Timme, have been big keys to the Bulldogs’ recent offensive surge, but players and coaches alike point to ball distribution as another pivotal aspect of why GU’s been able to score 342 points against Pepperdine, BYU and Santa Clara.

“I would just say our high assists is kind of showing,” guard Rasir Bolton said on Saturday. “We’re learning how to play with each other. Coming into this season, we were young and a new team with me being a transfer and stuff. I think we’re just starting to figure each other out and things are starting to run smooth.”

Before the season started, Gonzaga coach Mark Few told reporters on more than one occasion the youth of his team was evident in practices. Few said the 2020-21 Bulldogs would’ve been equipped to play in the NCAA Tournament by September, but noted a younger 2021-22 team that hadn’t spent much time playing together would be unfit to do the same.

Sixteen games in, the 2021-22 team is beginning to gel – nothing proving that point better than the high assist numbers in WCC play.

“Last year’s offense was historical for college basketball, so it’s hard to say too much,” Few said. “But yeah, this has been a great run. B-Mike (Brian Michaelson) said we’re over 25 assists three games in a row. We’re sharing it really good and guys are making shots. You make shots it always makes it look better.”

Gonzaga’s getting its assists both from the usual suspects and younger players who are starting to get a better feel not only for the speed of the college game, but also the speed of the Bulldogs’ up-tempo offense.

Over the last three games, senior point guard Andrew Nembhard, the WCC’s assists leader at 5.3 apg, has dished out 8.6 apg after recording 12 against BYU and eight against Pepperdine. One of Nembhard’s understudies, freshman guard Nolan Hickman, is also in the midst of his best stretch as a distributor. Hickman matched a season-high with four assists against Santa Clara and has 10 in WCC play – the rookie’s most over a three-game stretch this season.

“What I like is we’re sharing it and making the right reads,” Few said. “There’s a lot of reads that need to be made with the pace that we play and the guys are doing a good job of that. Young guys are getting really good at that now, which is different than where we were earlier.”

Bolton keeping tabs

Gonzaga’s newest transfer guard left Ames, Iowa, last season looking for a better situation on the heels of 2020-21 campaign that saw Iowa State go 2-22 in spite of a 15.5 point-per-game scoring average from Bolton, an All-Big-12 Third Team performer.

Bolton found the ideal destination in Gonzaga, the NCAA’s reigning runner-up and a program that’s churned out more than a few successful transfer guards. Bolton’s enjoying the ride he’s on with the country’s second-ranked team, but the former ISU guard has also been thrilled to see his former teammates find success in a way few expected they would after losing their top scorer.

The 13th-ranked Cyclones have been the surprise story of the Big-12 this season with a 14-3 record – their only losses coming at home to No. 1 Baylor and on the road against No. 9 Kansas and Oklahoma. Iowa State also has four wins over teams who were ranked at the time, including two ranked teams the Zags have also beat. Those include No. 25 Xavier, No. 9 Memphis, No. 25 Texas Tech and No. 21 Texas.

“I still talk to some of those guys, definitely,” Bolton said. “I’m happy for them. I’m glad they’re doing what they’re doing now. Last year was a tough year for all of us, so I’m glad everybody’s where they’re at now and doing their best.”

Before splitting games against Oklahoma and Texas, Iowa State was projected by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi as a No. 6 seed playing in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s be great, I’d love to see them, I’d love to play against them and see them guys again,” Bolton said. “I’d definitely want to win, but I’m sure they’re thinking the same thing, so it’d definitely be fun to see them.”

Making their case

A winless week for No. 1 Baylor means somebody other than the Bears will hold the top spot in the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time since Dec. 6. With No. 3 UCLA and No. 5 USC both absorbing losses, the only legitimate contenders for the No. 1 ranking on Monday morning are No. 2 Gonzaga and No. 3 Auburn.

We do our best to outline arguments for both in the section below.

The Bulldogs carry a record of 14-2 after wins over BYU and Santa Clara while the Tigers sit at 16-1 after beating No. 24 Alabama and Ole Miss on the road. Pollsters who only take into account what the teams did the previous week, and where they were in the last edition of the AP rankings, may lean toward moving Gonzaga to the top spot.

GU’s wins over BYU and Santa Clara came by 58 combined points while Auburn’s wins over Alabama and Ole Miss came by just 13 points. So, Gonzaga’s margin of victory is significantly more impressive and the Bulldogs’ opponents are actually stronger than Auburn’s, according to both NET and KenPom rankings. BYU and Santa Clara have an average NET ranking of 57.5 while Alabama and Santa Clara carry an average ranking of 68.5.

Currently, Gonzaga is the top-rated team in NET while Auburn sits fifth. The Bulldogs rank No. 1 in KenPom with the Tigers sitting eight spots lower at No. 9.

As for Auburn’s case? One could move the Tigers ahead of the Bulldogs simply on the fact that Auburn beat Alabama on the road while Gonzaga lost to the Crimson Tide at a neutral site (Seattle) where Bulldog fans probably numbered Alabama fans 9 to 1.

Gonzaga has two wins over teams who were ranked inside the top-five (No. 2 UCLA, No. 5 Texas) at the time, while Auburn’s ranked wins came over No. 16 LSU and No. 24 Alabama. The Tigers have a better record in Quad 1 games, at 4-1 compared to GU’s 4-2, and although both teams are unbeaten in Quad 2 games, Auburn’s played in four of those while Gonzaga’s appeared in just one.

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