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Scouting the Contenders 2022: Gonzaga Bulldogs

Drew Timme, Gonzaga
As March Madness slowly inches closer and closer, "Scouting the Contenders" takes a look at some of the nation's best teams in a chaotic race, scouts their strengths and weaknesses, and takes a best guess on just how far they could go in the NCAA Tournament. We continue with the Gonzaga Bulldogs, who recently retook their post as the No. 1 team in the nation.

Track Record

  • 23-2 overall, 12-0 in the West Coast Conference
  • Notable wins: 86-74 vs. Texas, 83-63 @ UCLA, 69-55 vs. Texas Tech, 74-58 vs. Saint Mary's
  • Losses: 84-81 @ Duke, 91-82 vs. Alabama
  • Clinched 10th straight WCC Title

Scouting Report
Mark Few's Gonzaga program continues to run like a well-oiled machine. After coming just short of an undefeated season in 2020-21, the Bulldogs have been one of the most consistently strong teams anywhere in college basketball this year. With Auburn's recent struggles, the 'Zags were able to reclaim the No. 1 spot in the country, and they are the clear betting favorite to be the top overall seed come NCAA Tournament time. With that success, comes added pressure. Few has now taken this program to a pair of National Championship Games in just the past half-decade, but came up short in both. Is this year's team finally the one to bring a National Title back to Spokane?
Offensive strength/versatility... Much like last year's team, this Gonzaga team boasts one of the best offenses in America. They average nearly 90 points per game and shoot an efficient clip from the field, three-point, and from the free throw line. There are several reasons why this group is so effective; for one, they have enough talent on the roster that they can spread out their scoring and don't have to rely on just one or two pieces. Forward Drew Timme is the leading scorer and the star of the team, but Andrew Nembhard, Julian Strawther, Chet Holmgren, and Rasir Bolton can all handle the offensive load when needed. Just as important, it's a group with a lot of varying strengths and skillsets, which gives the offense significant versatility. It's a real pain for opposing defenses when they have to deal with a pair of seven-footers who can both shoot the three ball like Timme and Holmgren, and the backcourt trio can shoot and penetrate as well as anybody in the nation. Lastly, you'll notice when watching Gonzaga just how freely this offense flows; the ball movement, spacing, cutting, all of it is at a professional level. This isn't your average college basketball team, they play with a rhythm and movement that you simply don't see very often. It's easy to say every high-scoring offense that can shoot is reminiscent of the peak-Golden State Warriors, but this group has shades of that offense, even if they don't have a pair of "Splash Brothers" in their backcourt.
Size... Timme and Holmgren are two players that you don't see very often in college basketball, let alone on the same team. They're well-rounded big men who are incredibly tough to guard; Timme is a machine around the basket and excellent at finding space in the paint. Holmgren, on the other hand, is incredibly quick for his size and is shooting 45% from three-point territory. There's not many teams that have defenders capable of stopping that duo, with their mix of size and skillset. Even the Gonzaga backcourt brings size to the table. Nembhard and Strawther, two of their primary ball-handlers, are 6'5" and 6'7", respectively. That enables them to dictate mismatches offensively and on defense, both of them have a knack for getting their hands in passing lanes. This overall size is supported by the numbers, too. The Bulldogs are Top 10 in the nation in rebounding and blocks, and actually leads the nation in defensive rebounding. Those types of things matter, particularly when it comes to the Big Dance. Gonzaga's ability to not allow second chance possessions could mean all the difference when they face tougher foes down the line.
Coaching... Mark Few is one of the best coaches in college basketball, full stop. He's always been a great program builder, and has taken his recruiting to a completely different stratosphere, but people still don't completely respect his basketball mind. He's an absolute tactician as an offensive coach and is great situationally; he's proven his worth in countless close Gonzaga victories. Just as important, Few is a calm, steadying presence on the sidelines. That's crucial for a Bulldog team that always has significant pressure on them, which will be taken to another level in March. Having a voice of reason like Few leading the charge should help the 'Zags survive the chaos of an event literally coined, "March Madness."
Motivation... No basketball team ever needs extra motivation to go out and try and compete for a National Title, but you get a feeling this means even more to Gonzaga with how last year panned out. To be the most dominant team all season and frankly, one of the most dominant teams we've seen in decades, and fall short on the goal-line is quite the motivator. Most of last year's group remains in town, namely Timme and Nembhard, and their goal has been obvious. It's not about West Coast Conference Titles, or No. 1 rankings, or a No. 1 seed. It's all about getting to the National Championship and this time, finishing the job. "Championship or bust" is a phrase that I think gets thrown around too often, but for this Gonzaga team, I think it fits perfectly.

Competition... This is the common knock against Gonzaga, but it's only partially fair. The Bulldogs always play tough in the non-conference portion of the season, evidenced by games against Texas, Texas Tech, Alabama, and Duke this year. The West Coast Conference has also rapidly improved behind them; BYU and Saint Mary's remain consistent NCAA Tournament teams and the league could put as many as 4-5 teams in the Big Dance in 2022. With that being said, Gonzaga still doesn't face the same type of schedule other teams grappling for a No. 1 seed do. Between their meeting with Texas Tech right before Christmas and their victory over Saint Mary's just over a week ago, they did not face a single ranked foe. They still faced several quality opponents, such as BYU and San Francisco, but beating up on middle-of-the-pack WCC teams is different than beating up middle teams in say, the Big Ten. It's hard to know how this impacts Gonzaga; they've shown the last few years that the lack of difficult schedule for weeks at a time hasn't kept them reaching a National Championship. But, the lack of elite opponents on the schedule down the stretch reduces their ability to figure out their own deficiencies and work through them. It's not always as simple as "iron sharpens iron," but it's not crazy to think a tougher schedule would end up doing the Bulldogs good in the long run.
Depth... This is a bit of nitpicking this Gonzaga team, particularly when you consider most modern college basketball teams only go 8-9 deep. But, you do wonder if the Bulldogs have the legs to survive the gauntlet of March with this current roster. They have five proven starters and have three other guys that play at least 15 minutes in a pair of freshmen, Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman, and veteran big Anton Watson. Beyond that, there's not very much on this roster beyond a pair of little-used pieces in forward Ben Gregg and guard Matthew Lang. Gonzaga has proven you don't need to be 11-12 deep to be successful and it helps when your starting lineup is as effective as this group is, but it's something to consider when you're evaluating the Bulldogs.
Perimeter defense... If you watch the tape of Gonzaga's two losses, there are a few things that jump out. Most notably, they turned the ball over quite a bit in both defeats but overall, they don't turn the ball over too much, averaging out to around 11 per. The more notable thing to watch in the losses and some of Gonzaga's other close games, has been the guard battle. Nembhard, Bolton, and Strawther are tremendous offensive players, but they've been outplayed on the other end on more than one occasion. Nembhard leads the team in steals and is a good defender at the point-of-attack, but Bolton and Strawther leave a lot to be desired. It hasn't been too much of an issue for Gonzaga because their offense can generally respond but there's a chance they run into guard-oriented teams in the NCAA Tournament who will be able to take advantage. The Alabama game in particular was telling; Jaden Shackelford dropped 28 points for Alabama and the pace of the Tide caused Gonzaga significant difficulties. If Gonzaga runs into them again or faces a similar opponent, I think that the blueprint for beating them is there, especially late in the year when they don't have their legs. One team in particular Gonzaga has yet to play that I think could give them real problems in a hypothetical Final Four/National Championship game? Kentucky, whose collection of guards (along with the dominance of big Oscar Tshiebwe) has propelled them into becoming a National Title frontrunner.

Bottom Line
Gonzaga entered the season as my National Title pick and after three months of basketball, my opinion hasn't shifted too much on them. This is a really good basketball team with an excellent coach leading the charge; Timme and Nembhard are two of my favorite players in college basketball and Holmgren is a special talent. They've proven their worth not only by beating up on the WCC, but impressing in the non-conference portion of the season. I think they're one of the safer bets to make a Final Four, but the big question for me remains the same as it did preseason: can they finish the job? This team is a step below last year's edition in my mind, but their path appears easier, without any clear favorite right now in college basketball. That alone makes them one of the smarter National Title picks out there, particularly with the added motivation from last year's loss. This program has been unfairly labeled as somewhat of March choke, unable to finish the job despite countless high seeds. Not only is that not completely true, I don't think it will be the case for long. This program has way too much talent and Few is too good of a coach for the 'Zags to remain National Title-less for long; this team can certainly be the one to bring one back to Spokane.

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