Gonzaga is the AP preseason No. 1 team in the country for the first time in program history. Yet, it’s not even surprising. That is how far the Bulldogs have come over recent campaigns in proving themselves to be among the best. Head coach Mark Few’s bunch is no longer a Cinderella, nor should they be described as “overrated.” In fact, the theory that Gonzaga doesn’t live up to its hype should be dispelled. While the Bulldogs are yet to cut down the nets as national champions, in no way does that make them frauds.
Gonzaga has been a burgeoning powerhouse throughout the 21st century. That’s just the truth, and the program is only getting better. The Bulldogs have reached the NCAA Tournament in 21 straight campaigns, outperforming or tying their seed projection 15 times over that stretch. Their recent streak of five consecutive trips to (at least) the Sweet 16 shouldn’t be overlooked either, nor should their projected No. 1 seed for the 2020 postseason prior to its cancellation.
Quite simply, the Bulldogs have been on par with the best of the best in college hoops:
Despite their high level of recent performance, though, it seems like the best days are still ahead. The Zags have taken their recruiting to the next level and are increasing their talent pool annually as a result. Even with a few critical departures this offseason, Gonzaga is still ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation. Returning stars are the primary reason for this but the Bulldogs also have the No. 14 recruiting class in the nation arriving on campus.
With great coaching, established vets, and impact freshmen, this could be *the year* in Spokane.
Big guards will push the tempo.
Gonzaga has consistently played at a relatively quick pace under head coach Mark Few. Throughout his tenure, the Bulldogs have consistently ranked in the upper half of the nation in terms of possessions per game. Though they did take things a bit slower in 2016, they have zagged back to transition even more ever since. This trend has been particularly evident over the past two seasons.
In 2018-19 and 2019-20, respectively, they have exhibited their two fastest offenses since KenPom started tracking possessions by offense vs. defense in 2010. Those offenses also ranked best in the nation in adjusted efficiency.
There are several ingredients necessary to concoct the nation’s fastest and most-efficient offense but none are as important than having elite guard play. Even with Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder graduating, the Bulldogs are loaded in that department. Their mostly new-look backcourt features several pieces capable of pushing the pace, splashing from distance, and playing multiple positions. If Gonzaga’s guards have one thing in common this season, it is their combination of size and athleticism.
Joel Ayayi, a 6-5 junior oozing with all-around potential, will be the vocal leader of this group. After playing sparingly as a freshman, Ayayi burst onto the scene last season while posting averages of 10.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.3 steals in 29.3 minutes per game. Coming off the bench only lasted nine games for Ayayi last season as he became the full-time starter after that. He was also named the WCC Tournament Most Outstanding Player.
Ayayi is a big guard capable of reading defenses and making high-level passes. As a result of his athleticism and vision, he can be a terror in transition. He also uses his size well on the glass; his 17.8% defensive rebounding rate ranked third on the Bulldogs (and 431st nationally). With his improvement as a 3-point shooter last season (34.5 percent on 119 attempts), Ayayi upped his efficiency into elite levels. The Frenchman needs to develop more defensive consistency but is already a clutch performer. He has room to make another leap as a junior.
Ayayi is a lock to start and will likely be joined by five-star freshman Jalen Suggs (No. 11 recruit). A star on the gridiron as well as on the hardwood, Suggs is another big-bodied and uber-athletic guard poised to make headlines for the Bulldogs this season. He comes in at 6-4 with skills to either be the team’s primary playmaker or thrive in off-ball situations.
Suggs brings a lot to the court but nothing pops as obviously as his explosiveness. Both with his elite first step and his insane bounce, it is very easy to see why NBA scouts are excited about his finishing. Suggs is relentless in his pursuit of buckets at the rim. He also showcases solid range from distance and makes quality reads as a passer. With versatile ability as a ball-handler, Suggs is deadly in the pick-and-roll. He can get downhill in a hurry or make defenses pay for going underneath screens.
Additionally, his defensive versatility greatly contributes to winning. Suggs already defends at a high level and should only improve as he gets used to the speed of the college game. His ability to read passing lanes to come away with steals or to simply come away with defensive rebounds himself will help the Zags push the ball in transition even more than they already do.
Suggs will likely only spend one season in Spokane but it could be a very special one.
Corey Kispert = Gonzaga’s best player?
Jalen Suggs attracts a ton of attention due to his high-flying dunks and recruiting rankings. Joel Ayayi and Drew Timme also receive their fair share of publicity as many prognosticators are projecting major breakout campaigns. As a result, returning senior wing/forward Corey Kispert has somehow flown under the radar this offseason as Gonzaga’s best player. At least, he was flying under the radar before being named a preseason First Team All-American.
An elite perimeter sniper with the size to play multiple positions, it is time for Kispert to emerge as the top scorer in Spokane. He should be up for the challenge. Not only does he bring valuable experience but he is also fresh off a pretty darn good season. The 6-7 sniper averaged 13.9 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game last year while connecting on 43.8 percent of his 3-pointers.
These were across-the-board improvements compared to his sophomore season even while increasing his usage rate from 14.5% to 18.2%. Perhaps even more notably than the usage increase, Kispert was doing far more damage as a self-creator. After attempting just nine 2-point jumpers in 2018-19, Kispert attacked close-outs and beat his man to the tune of 25-for-57 (43.9 percent) shooting in the mid-range last year.
He was able to bring efficiency to an otherwise “dead” shot type, greatly varying his offensive impact in the process. Kispert appeared to improve substantially in both in off-the-dribble or off-cut situations. He also still finished extremely well at the rim (56.4 percent) and splashed home 78 total 3-pointers. As showcased by his 33rd-best offensive rating in the nation (123.8), his shot chart was an efficiency dream.
Gonzaga also has a few solid options available to provide depth behind Kispert, namely Julian Strawther (fr.) and Martynas Arlauskas (soph.). Both were Top 150 recruits in their respective classes and have the potential to play minutes off the bench. We could also see Coach Few turn to three-guard lineups for stretches as well. Regardless, Kispert will be the Top Dawg on the wing for the Zags this season and for very good reasons.
I already alluded to his ability to play multiple positions, but that shouldn’t simply be glossed over. As Three Man Weave discussed in their preview of the Zags, last year’s team murdered opponents in small-ball minutes with Kispert at the “4”. While the Bulldogs have other frontcourt options, Kispert will pair up with Timme to form a “death lineup” occasionally.
It’s Timme Time.
With Filip Petrusev and Killian Tillie both departing this offseason, Gonzaga’s oft-vaunted frontcourt will now be led by rising sophomore Drew Timme. An efficiency darling during his inaugural season in Spokane, Timme has “star” written all over him. He lived up to his Top 50 billing as a freshman and will now be the interior focal point. Not only is he an excellent post finisher with a variety of moves, but his ability to run the floor in Gonzaga’s up-tempo offense makes him impactful in transition as well.
Timme was one of Gonzaga’s primary reserves last season while being named to the All-WCC Freshman Team. He averaged an efficient 9.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 0.9 blocks in just over 20 minutes per game. His play popped on the “eye test” but efficiency metrics also back up his incredible impact. Timme ranked 14th in the entire country in Bayesian Performance Rating last season and is set for a big jump in playing time. For reference, BPR measures “a player’s overall value to his team when he is on the floor.”
Timme plays with tremendous energy and is a legitimate All-American candidate. Gonzaga has had some great big men recently and Timme will add his name to that ever-growing list. He already commanded the third-highest usage rate on the team last season (21.0%) but should see even touches per minute this time around. For reference, the departed Petrusev exhibited a 30.9% usage rate last season.
Losing the WCC Player of the Year is never easy to overcome, but Timme should make the transition look seamless. A sophomore leap into national stardom is in his future.
Second-years fill out the frontcourt.
Joining Kispert and Timme in the frontcourt rotation will be a trio of second-year players in Anton Watson (soph.), Oumar Ballo (redshirt fr.), and Pavel Zakharov (soph.). One of these three will likely assume the starting spot alongside Timme while at least one of the other two should provide quality depth.
Starting with Watson, the 6-8 forward was incredible during his inaugural season last year before going down with an injury. He appeared in only 15 contests — starting five — but was impactful on both ends of the floor for his 14.7 minutes per game. For someone who mostly plays the “4” spot, he was particularly excellent distributing the ball (15.7% assist rate) and disrupting passing lanes (4.5% steal rate). He also blocked a fair number of shots.
Watson’s defensive ability alone will net him big minutes this season but he is also rock-solid on the glass and finished well at the rim in limited minutes. He feels like an excellent fit alongside the ball-dominant, high-usage Timme and should be a starter from the opening tip. Having him back in the rotation thrills Gonzaga fans. He almost exclusively plays the “4”, though, despite his versatility. It will be up to Ballo and Zakharov to fill the reserve minutes at center.
Ballo is my favorite of the two to play big minutes. The former Top 100 recruit redshirted last season but we have already seen glimpses of his impressive play. Most notably, the 7-footer was a one-man wrecking crew at the FIBA U19 World Cup in 2019. He led Mali to a second-place finish while averaging 17.6 points (7th at the event), 11.8 rebounds (1st), and 3.8 blocks (1st) per game. Ballo has received praise from basically anyone that has seen him, including recruiting prognosticators and NBA Draft analysts alike.
Zakharov played sparingly as a freshman last year, appearing in 19 games and playing 85 total minutes. The Russian big man from Montverde Academy was ranked as the No. 60 overall recruit in the 2019 recruiting class, though, and could definitely be a major piece in the rotation. With Timme holding down the starting spot and Ballo good to go, Zakharov will face stiff competition for playing time. Zakharov should be slotted as Gonzaga’s third big, which further shows the depth and talent of the Bulldog frontcourt.
Harris and Cook provide backcourt depth.
The frontcourt does not contain all of Gonzaga’s depth, however. While Ayayi/Suggs will be the starting backcourt this year, the Bulldogs also have a pair of reserves joining the mix. Aaron Cook and Dominick Harris are both new to the program and should each fill 10-20 minutes per game. In a season as unpredictable as this one projects to be, having quality depth could be critical.
Cook marks the third consecutive season in which Gonzaga will feature a graduate transfer guard. Ryan Woolridge filled that role last year while Geno Crandall held the position prior. While it is hard to forecast Cook’s exact role, his primary impact will likely be as a spark-plug scorer and capable defender. The 6-1 guard is coming off an injury that limited him to just six games last season but had previously averaged 10.5 points per game in 2018-19 for Southern Illinois.
Cook also defends at a relatively high level and creates his fair share of turnovers (career 3.2% steal rate). Gonzaga lacked depth in its backcourt last season and Cook will help to solve that issue. He also adds a dose of experience that never hurts. Expect him to be more Crandall than Woolridge, if forced to choose a Bulldog comparison.
The other notable guard addition this offseason is Dominick Harris. A true freshman from Rancho Christian, Calif., Harris arrives as the No. 69 overall recruit in the class. Unlike Suggs, Harris figures to be a multi-year player in Spokane as a future leader of the roster. As for his first year, though, he is poised to be the second guard off the bench. Harris is at his best with the ball in his hands but can play either backcourt slot.
Harris already boasts a college-ready 6-3 frame and is quite athletic. These two factors should allow him to see the floor right away. In terms of playing style, Harris is mainly a bucket-getter who can create for himself off the dribble. He also could be a solid defender.
With Ayayi’s ability to play 1-through-3 positionally, Coach Few has options for how he wants to handle his backcourt this season. Cook and Harris will not be stars, but they will play vital reserve roles. Their impacts off the bench should not go underrated this season as that could be the difference between being a very good team and contending for the national title.
Zags will be well-coached, talented, and battle-tested.
Talent is all over Gonzaga’s roster this year. Additionally, all of the pieces seem to fit together and within Coach Few’s overarching scheme. The Bulldogs will once again look to push the pace this season behind elite guard play while also boasting a perimeter sniper and a dominant post threat. Bringing Anton Watson back from injury should also help the Bulldogs maintain a solid, albeit not spectacular, defense.
It is truly amazing how far Gonzaga has come. The Bulldogs lost crucial pieces this offseason with Killian Tillie, Ryan Woolridge, and Admon Gilder graduating, and that goes without mentioning Filip Petrusev leaving early to play professionally. Coach Few had one of his best teams last year, lost four huge rotation pieces, and now has an even better on-paper roster in front of him for 2020-21. Gonzaga’s talent reloading is at a level right now that very few programs in the nation can match.
Additionally, Gonzaga will undoubtedly be battle-tested this season. The Bulldogs *know* that they are one of the best teams in the country and are not afraid of any challenges. You will be hard-pressed to find many people complaining about Gonzaga backing down from stiff competition this time around. Non-conference neutral-site matchups against Kansas, Auburn, Baylor, and Iowa make for a difficult schedule.
Of course, Mark Few and his staff make all of this possible. This group not only does an exceptional job landing commitments from all over the world but also internally develops players extremely well. Gonzaga is one of the most well-run and best-coached programs nationwide.
As we’ve seen from so many other programs, having talent is only one part of the puzzle. With Coach Few and Co. on the sidelines, the Bulldogs have everything that it takes to put it all together and win a national championship.
Lukas Harkins is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com and covers the nation with rankings, bracketology, analysis, and recruiting breakdowns. He is currently a Rockin’ 25 voter and is credentialed media for Butler. He previously worked as one of the site experts at Busting Brackets. Harkins graduated from Butler University in 2019 and majored in Healthcare and Business. Originally from Wisconsin.