The onset of college basketball season is always a sweet affair for Gonzaga men’s basketball. Particularly in a year when the certainty of play had been in limbo since last season’s premature cancellation in March, the preseason No. 1 Zags await in eager anticipation now that a bulk of their 2020-21 schedule has been ascertained.
Starting with their nonconference string of matchups, the Zags will host eight home games throughout December against mostly regional opponents. Head coach Mark Few has also assorted a gantlet run of invitational games for the Zags to prove their worthiness as the nation’s top dog, which if GU can settle on the particularities of a proposed game against No. 12 Tennessee, will include four matchups with preseason top 15 opponents.
The major difference the team will have to adjust to before facing off in these monumental contests is that they’ll have to be prepared from the jump without any preseason tune up action.
“We normally start off strong with our nonconference schedules, but the difference this year compared to years past is that there’s no tune-up games and you have to be ready to go from the first minute of the first game and that’s going to be against a really good team,” Kispert said.
The aforementioned joy held by the team on opening day this season will almost certainly convert into tension the moment GU first tips off on Nov. 26 against No. 6 Kansas in the Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off.
The 28-3 Jayhawks ended last season on top of the AP rankings, and they return three starters from last year’s lineup, including Naismith and ESPN defensive player of the year Marcus Garrett.
Garrett can guard any position on the floor, but he will look to be especially troublesome for guard Jalen Suggs as it will be his first collegiate game. The contest will most likely become a showcase in the Zags’ perennial bread and butter of high level frontcourt play, with Watson and Timme trying to supply constant pressure in the key while Ayayi and Suggs look to create space.
To capitalize on a developing Auburn team in the second and final game of the series, the Zags may use the same strategy in order to optimize their size advantage.
The Zags third slated game of the year is their Dec. 5 showdown with preseason No. 2 Baylor in Indianapolis, a game the Bears are sure to be looking at to exact revenge in after GU caused their exit in the second round of the 2019 NCAA tournament. The Bears host three players who have been placed onto preseason watchlists for season awards at their respective decisions, and in particular, their two guards in MaCio Teague and Jared Butler match up well with the Bulldogs’ backcourt.
After their excursion to Indiana, GU will look towards a Dec. 19 meeting with No. 5 ranked Iowa in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The battle of the bigs will be on full display as Timme and Watson will be taking on last season Wooden award runner-up Luka Garza and preseason All-Big Ten forward Joe Wieskamp.
Then, it’ll be time for GU to ascend on the two-month-long haul of West Coast Conference action. Sixteen games for the Zags spanning from Jan. 2 until Feb. 28 against conference opponents will decide their placing in the WCC tournament which begins March 4.
The only WCC team outside of GU recognized by AP voters in their initial poll was BYU, which received four votes, not enough to crack the top 25. Even with the Cougars newest addition in top flight power forward from Purdue Matt Haarms, it may be Pepperdine’s senior guard Colby Ross who poses the most imminent threat to the Zags’ chances at repeating a title in Vegas.
“Colby is a great player and he’s given us a lot of problems over the past couple of years,” Kispert said. “I’m really looking forward to battling it out with him come conference play.”
There’s no doubt that the Zags will have to call upon more players than ever this season, but they have the comprehensive personnel to do so. Whether it’s Joel Ayayi or true freshman Julien Strawther starting for GU down the stretch, the team’s journey in pursuit of unclaimed NCAA glory will remain just as strong until the very end.
“Before any Xs and Os or any matchups go down, it’s all about staying healthy so we’re making sure that we’re doing our best to do that all the way through conference as the goal,” Kispert said.
Because as sweet as the Thanksgiving Day tipoff will be, the finest of basketball delicacies potentially awaits the Zags at the culmination of their 2020-21 journey in March.