Ahead of Saturday’s men’s Final Four, we’ll be previewing each of No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 1 Baylor, No. 2 Houston and No. 11 UCLA this week. Houston, Baylor and UCLA are done; last up is Gonzaga, the undefeated juggernaut and the tournament’s top seed. Here’s everything you need to know about the WCC team coached by Mark Few.
How It Got Here
Gonzaga has made its journey to the Final Four look relatively easy. A 43-point win over Norfolk State was followed by a 16-point defeat of Oklahoma, then an 18-point victory against Creighton before finally knocking off a red-hot USC team by 19. Gonzaga has made very good teams look pedestrian: It hasn’t led by less than nine in the second half of any of its four games so far in Indianapolis.
In fact, on a per possession basis, Gonzaga has actually outscored its opponents in the NCAA tournament so far by more than it did its WCC opponents. The Bulldogs’ dominance is nearly unheard of, and there’s a reason this team is just two wins away from becoming the first men’s undefeated national champions in 45 years.
One Big Thing We’ve Learned
There’s no stopping Drew Timme. The sophomore big man with one of the best mustaches you’ll find anywhere has dominated this tournament, scoring 75 points in his last three games. Timme had 30 against a smaller Oklahoma frontcourt, 22 against an athletic Creighton frontcourt and 23 against one of the longest and best defensive frontcourts in the country in USC. Zones haven’t slowed him down, and neither have double-teams. Timme is simply an unstoppable force down low and has proven himself to be Gonzaga’s best player during this tournament run.
Gonzaga does what it does all season long. Timme is a consistent force down low that teams can’t stop, Jalen Suggs helps the Bulldogs get out in transition, Corey Kispert knocks down threes and everyone else does their jobs. No team has successfully slowed down the Gonzaga offense in this tournament, and the USC team that the Bulldogs just hung 85 on are rated better defensively by KenPom than anyone left in the field. Gonzaga stays in cruise control to get past UCLA and then gets a chance at history against Baylor or Houston.
Three teams have had a legitimate chance of beating Gonzaga this season: Kansas in the season opener, West Virginia a few days later and BYU in the WCC tournament. All three teams were able to put up points at a high rate against the Gonzaga defense and were in the game with 10 minutes to go. The worst case for Gonzaga is a team like UCLA coming out hot from three and putting game pressure on in the closing minutes. The Zags have closed games well this year, but it’s different to do it with everything on the line. A cold shooting night for Gonzaga and some clutch shot-making by an opponent could be enough to make it a game.
X-Factor: Joel Ayayi
Ayayi is, in some ways, the forgotten man on this Gonzaga team. On a lot of teams, he’d be the best or second-best player. For this year’s Bulldogs, he’s the fourth (and sometimes fifth) option on offense. Instead, he has embraced being an elite defender, efficient scorer and good passer for this Gonzaga team. But Ayayi has stepped up multiple times this season when needed, making several big shots and locking down an opponent’s best player. Don’t be surprised if he makes key plays when it matters most this weekend … especially given he’s likely to draw the assignment of Johnny Juzang against UCLA.
One Shining Moment Candidate: Jalen Suggs
As necessary as it will be to include Timme’s mustache-related celebrations in this year’s “One Shining Moment,” Suggs is one of the most explosive players in the country. He’s capable of producing a highlight in a moment’s notice, using his defensive instincts to get a steal, streak down the floor and throw it down in style. Expect at least one dunk that makes your jaw drop from Suggs this weekend.
As good as UCLA has been this tournament, it hasn’t faced a buzzsaw like Gonzaga. The Bulldogs win comfortably after some nervy early moments to advance to their second national championship game with a chance to make history.