SAN FRANCISCO – Picture Mark Few, tucking into bed, and like any coach this time of year, his mind is awash with anxiety. So much can go wrong on the basketball floor; how can a coach get any sleep at all?
But then Few has visions of guard Andrew Nembhard dribbling in his mind. He knows how much he can trust Nembhard to pilot the Gonzaga basketball team, and do all the right things on the court.
And suddenly Few can drift peacefully off to dreamland.
Andrew NyQuil, er, Nembhard is the Zags’ sandman, the closer, the distributor and, according to Few, the nation’s pre-eminent point guard.
“I mean, it’s unbelievable how comforting and reassuring it is going through a preparation week, and even putting your head on the pillow the night before a big game like this, knowing you have the best point guard in the country,” Few said.
Few generally is not one given to hyperbole, but he’s made this claim about Nembhard several times this season, so it’s a message he’s trying to get across to the nation’s media.
He will need Nembhard to be at his best as the top-seeded Zags face No. 4-seeded Arkansas at the Chase Center in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 round.
Almost everybody who has sat in front of a microphone for the Zags during the NCAA Tournament has raved about Nembhard’s value, using a variety of metaphors for his contributions. Nembhard, Few said, “sets the table” for post players Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren.
“Like, come on, give him some more credit, golly,” Timme begged the media.
They know they need to be his hype men because the understated Nembhard doesn’t spend much time making his own case for accolades.
“Andrew’s had just a phenomenal year of us,” Few said. “Literally, we wouldn’t even have made the NCAA Tournament, or even been close, without (him).
The 6-foot-5 guard from Canada, a transfer from Florida before last season, was the MVP of the West Coast Conference Tournament. In the two WCC Tournament games, and the NCAA wins over Georgia State and Memphis, Nembhard has been at his best, peaking at the right time.
In those four games, he’s averaged 17 points and shot 54.5% from 3-point range, averaging eight assists. And putting Few’s mind at even greater ease, Nembhard has come up huge when the Zags have needed him the most.
Against Saint Mary’s in the WCC Tournament title game, Nembhard scored 10 points in 4 minutes in the second half to help give the Zags a comfortable margin. Against Memphis, he nailed a pair of 3-pointers and all four of his free throws to cap a furious GU rally.
“He’s the one that runs the ship, gets us going,” Timme said. “Without him, we wouldn’t be here.”
Timme touted Nembhard’s indefatigability after the Memphis game.
“This dude didn’t come out of the game one time and he’s getting picked up 94 feet. The amount of shape you have to be in to do that, to control the game and ice it with two free throws … it’s crazy.”
Nembhard is one of five finalists for the Cousy Award for the nation’s best point guard, validating Few’s claim of superiority. Of the five candidates, Villanova’s Collin Gillespie has a better scoring average (16 to 12), but Nembhard has 2.4 more assists per game.
“The other thing that I think is lost with him,” Few said. “He is arguably our best perimeter defender with his size and his strength and experience.”
Few reminded reporters of Nembhard’s huge game last fall against No. 2-ranked UCLA when he scored 24 points, and made 9 of 13 shots. Bruin Tyger Campbell, another of the nation’s highly rated point guards, finished with 11 points and one assist.
The statistics don’t always capture the timeliness of Nembhard’s heroics, or how quickly he and fellow guard Rasir Bolton get the ball up the floor to keep the Zags pressuring defenses in transition.
Nembhard will be tested against Arkansas by Razorback guard J.D. Notae, who has drawn some All-American recognition. Notae averages 18.4 points a game and has scored 18 and 17 in Arkansas’ two NCAA Tournament wins.
The duel between Nembhard and Notae will be a critical game within the game for the Zags.
If GU can win this one, Nembhard may have a few more chances to prove Few’s assessment of him is right on target.
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