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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Winning number: Four reasons why top-ranked Gonzaga could be celebrating in New Orleans come April 4

 (Illustration by Chris Morris)
(Illustration by Chris Morris)

Chet Holmgren took a break from firing pregame jumpers, walked through a gap between the Orleans Arena scorer’s table and a row of chairback sideline seats to pour a drink from a Gatorade cooler.

He took a direct route back, effortlessly striding over a chair onto the court like it wasn’t there. An usher took notice and quickly asked another witness, ‘Did you see that?’ in a way that suggested he’d never seen it before and didn’t think it was possible.

It wasn’t the first time Holmgren has done something on a basketball court that few others can do. The 7-footer has been called a “unicorn” by recruiting analysts for years and his unique ability to swat shots or go coast-to-coast for a dunk have prompted double takes from spectators and NBA scouts alike.

The freshman’s defensive presence is one of the primary reasons Gonzaga has a strong chance to return to the Final Four and secure the program’s first national championship.

There are no guarantees in March, or early April for that matter, but the Zags are well positioned for another deep tournament run. They were favored by oddsmakers to win the title at the outset of the season and they’re still the favorites entering Selection Sunday.

The Zags have some potential concerns, but name a team that doesn’t have a perceptible flaw or two. Here’s the top four reasons Gonzaga could be cutting down the nets in New Orleans next month.

Paint patrol

Holmgren’s size, timing and 7-6 wingspan puts opponents on notice when they enter the lane. He’s rejected 104 shots and he’s on pace to break Brandon Clarke’s school-record 117 should the Zags reach New Orleans.

Gonzaga’s 2017 defense was probably the best in program history, anchored by center Przemek Karnowski and forwards Johnathan Williams, Zach Collins and Killian Tillie. The unit was No. 1 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings while advancing to the national championship game.

The 2017 Zags blocked 4.7 shots per game, led by Collins’ 69, but their size altered countless paint attempts. The current Zags don’t have 2017’s depth of shot-blockers, but Holmgren possesses the same ability to redirect shots in the lane without getting a hand on the ball.

Holmgren’s impact extends beyond the 3-point line. As Gonzaga coach Mark Few has mentioned several times, guards can take more chances out front and stay tighter on quality shooters knowing Holmgren is waiting in the lane when opponents drive inside.

Gonzaga opponents are shooting 30.7% on 3-pointers. That figure was 28.9% vs. the Zags in 2017.

“Last year’s team had a crazy ability to spread the floor and really just space it out and we didn’t really have any rim protection,” said junior forward Drew Timme, whose 23 blocks paced the 2021 Zags. “This year you have a guy like Chet who is one of the best rim protectors if not the best rim protector in the country. Coach (Mark Few) does a great job adapting with the teams he has. He doesn’t try to put a square peg in a round hole, he adjusts and makes what works best for each team.”

San Francisco coach Todd Golden pointed out after Monday’s semifinal loss to Gonzaga that Holmgren typically guards the opposing center, which keeps him stationed closer to the paint.

NCAA Tournament opponents will present quality bigs to challenge Timme, Holmgren and Anton Watson. Timme avoided foul trouble nearly all season, finishing two games with four fouls and three with three. Holmgren hasn’t had many issues, but he fouled out against Saint Mary’s in the loss at Moraga, California, and had four fouls in several bigger games (San Francisco and Saint Mary’s in Las Vegas, Texas and Texas Tech.)

“Obviously, it’s nice to have somebody that can alter a bunch of shots,” Timme said. “I wonder how many shots that he doesn’t get credit for that he alters because he’s such a presence down there?”

Good question.

Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, background, and Chet Holmgren block Alabama’s Juwan Gary during the Dec. 4 Battle in Seattle at Climate Pledge Arena. Alabama won 91-82.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, background, and Chet Holmgren block Alabama’s Juwan Gary during the Dec. 4 Battle in Seattle at Climate Pledge Arena. Alabama won 91-82. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

More tests along the way

We hesitate to even go here because this is No. 1 on the naysayers’ list of criticisms of Gonzaga’s program. The oft-repeated narrative is the Zags overpower the lower-level West Coast Conference and earn an inflated high seed, leaving them vulnerable in close games against top competition in March Madness.

The argument usually leaves out the fact that the Zags are the only team to reach all of the last six Sweet 16s. They’re 20-6 in the tournament in that time frame.

That chatter hasn’t died down – and likely won’t until the Zags win a title – but it’s also fair to point out that the WCC just put together one of its best seasons. Gonzaga is projected by most as the top overall seed. Saint Mary’s and San Francisco appear to be locks for at-large berths.

BYU didn’t make the field in ESPN’s latest bracket projections, but the Cougars are seeded 12th and facing a play-in game by CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm.

The WCC has only had three tourney participants twice (2012 and 2008). The conference was considered a lock to have three in the 2020 tournament before it was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Zags are No. 1 in the NET, followed by Saint Mary’s (19), San Francisco (22), BYU (53) and Santa Clara (67).

Gonzaga just concluded a stretch of facing Santa Clara, San Francisco and Saint Mary’s to close the regular season, and USF and Saint Mary’s at the WCC Tournament.

“Those are tournament teams that we just beat and to be able to beat teams like that by double digits this time of year, especially when it’s the third time and they know everything you’re doing and know your personnel inside and out,” Few said. “We had to dig very, very deep.”

The Zags’ toughest challenges still came before the turn of the calendar year when they faced then No. 5 Texas (86-74 win), No. 2 UCLA (83-63 win), No. 5 Duke (84-81 loss), No. 16 Alabama (91-82 loss) and No. 25 Texas Tech (69-55 win).

All five remain in the NET top 30, led by Texas Tech at No. 9, UCLA at 10 and Duke at 11. Texas isn’t far behind at 16. Combined with the WCC slate, over half of GU’s games were against Quad 1 (10-3 record) and Quad 2 (2-0) foes.

Gonzaga guard Andrew Nembhard drives to the basket during Tuesday’s 82-69 win over Saint Mary’s at the WCC Tournament.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga guard Andrew Nembhard drives to the basket during Tuesday’s 82-69 win over Saint Mary’s at the WCC Tournament. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

On guard

Championship teams and great guard play are inseparable. The Zags took home the WCC Tournament trophy largely because senior guards Andrew Nembhard and Rasir Bolton took over in crunch time.

Nembhard routinely had solid performances against the WCC’s top teams as well as UCLA and Texas Tech. He’s played in 128 college games and seven in the NCAA Tournament, counting his two years at Florida. He had a pair of eight-assist games in last year’s Big Dance.

Bolton, who has played in 112 career games, averaged 14.2 points, made 52.2% of his 3-pointers and 88.2% at the foul line in GU’s final five games. He averaged 12.4 points against five ranked nonconference foes. He’s connected on 46.7% beyond the 3-point arc.

The Zags revolve around scoring machine Timme, who has three 30-point games this season, and Holmgren, who can sting opponents at both ends of the floor, but they also rely on balance with all five starters averaging double-figures in points. Wing Julian Strawther averages 12.3 points and produced 20 points and 10 boards against Duke.

“That’s what it’ll take through March,” Bolton said. “It’ll take a team effort. We’re not just one player or two players. We’re a team. We have to keep that rolling.”

Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert (24) hugs Jalen Suggs (1) as Gonzaga forward Drew Timme (2) looks on at the end of the championship game against Baylor in the men’s Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Monday, April 5, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Baylor won 86-70.  (Darron Cummings/Associated Press)
Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert (24) hugs Jalen Suggs (1) as Gonzaga forward Drew Timme (2) looks on at the end of the championship game against Baylor in the men’s Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Monday, April 5, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Baylor won 86-70. (Darron Cummings/Associated Press)

Motivating factors

The Zags probably couldn’t avoid the outside noise if they tried in the social media age, but they certainly seem motivated to go where no Gonzaga team has gone before.

Gonzaga isn’t carrying the weight of an undefeated record into the postseason like last year’s team, but it does carry the sting of an 86-70 loss to Baylor in the title game.

Timme was limited to 12 points by the Bears’ physical, athletic frontcourt. Nembhard logged a team-high 39 minutes and Watson played 13 minutes.

“As much as it hurts, it’s really helped me push through walls and barriers remembering that feeling,” Timme said in a Q&A prior to the season.

The Zags have firsthand experience dealing with the favorite’s role and ample motivation from not reaching their goal last April.

“Our focus is so far from the media and what they say about us being the favorites and winning, like last year we were undefeated and we were supposed to win the whole thing,” Nembhard said.

“We just really don’t focus on that type of stuff. We understand that we need to get better and that the only No. 1 team is the one who holds it up at the end of the year. Until we do that, we’re really not satisfied.”

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