NCAAB
April 1, 2021

Final Four Preview: Gonzaga Bulldogs

The Gonzaga Bulldogs are just two games away from making history.

Mark Few’s Zags are aiming to be the first team to win a national championship while undefeated since Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers did it during the 1975-76 season.

But can they pull it off and complete a perfect season?

Final Four Preview: UCLA | Baylor | Houston

How’d They Get Here

The Bulldogs enter the Final Four at 30-0. As usual, Gonzaga’s early-season schedule was challenging. The Bulldogs opened the season with wins over Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia, and Iowa. Later, they would beat Virginia before starting play in the West Coast Conference. Outside of the win over West Virginia, all of Gonzaga’s non-conference wins came by at least 10 points.

Needless to say, the Bulldogs weren’t challenged much during the conference season. Their undefeated record wasn’t seriously threatened until the West Coast Tournament final against BYU. Gonzaga trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half and faced a 12-point deficit. However, the Bulldogs outscored BYU by 22 points in the second half to win by a comfortable 10-point margin.

It’s been more of the same during the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga’s average margin of victory has been 22.5 points over the team’s four wins. The closest game was a 10-point win over Oklahoma in the Round of 32. Meanwhile, both Creighton and USC in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, respectively, failed to make things interesting against the Bulldogs.

Key Player

There’s been a tight three-way race for Gonzaga’s best player all season. However, the biggest key to the team’s success is point guard Jalen Suggs.

The freshman is just Gonzaga’s third-leading scorer at 14 points per game. However, he impacts the game in a variety of ways. Suggs leads the team in assists at 4.5 per game and is also their third-leading rebounder. He’s also a top-notch defender who averages close to two steals per game. Suggs is likely to be a top-five NBA Draft selection this summer and is the engine that makes Gonzaga go at such a high speed.

Without one of the best point guards in the country, the Bulldogs wouldn’t be able to average over 91 points per game and they definitely wouldn’t be undefeated.

Complementary Pieces 

It’s weird to think of All-Americans Drew Timme and Corey Kispert as complementary pieces, but that’s what they are on Gonzaga.

Kispert is the only forward in the country to be a First-Team All-American. His consistency and production have been remarkable this season, as he shoots 53.5% from the field and 45.3% from three-point range while averaging 18.9 points per game. Meanwhile, Timme (along with his signature handlebar mustache) has been on a tear throughout the tournament. The 6-foot-10 forward isn’t overpowering, but he’s skilled and crafty in the post, averaging 19 points per game. More importantly, he’s averaging 25 points per game since the Round of 32. Not even the size of Evan and Isaiah Mobley at USC could slow down Timme.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there for Gonzaga. Andrew Nembhard and Joey Ayayi complete the team’s backcourt alongside Suggs. Nembhard is a transfer from Florida who helps Suggs with ball-handling and creating, allowing the stud freshman to play off the ball. Ayayi is also an underrated scoring threat who averages 11.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. On most other teams, he’d be the second-best player, but on Gonzaga, he’s a role player.

Biggest Weakness

Your guess for Gonzaga’s biggest flaw is as good as ours. It’s tough to find a significant shortcoming on the Bulldogs.

One could say that depth is an issue. In close games, Few doesn’t go much past six or seven players in his rotation. But outside of foul trouble, why would a coach in his right mind ever want to take Suggs, Kispert, or Timme off the floor?

At times, Gonzaga’s defense can be lacking, specifically when it comes to defending the three-point line. However, Suggs is terrific on the ball and the Bulldogs excel at creating opportunities in transition. A few teams have managed to get hot against Gonzaga from the perimeter this season. But that’s not necessarily a good game plan against the Bulldogs that can hold up over 40 minutes.

Perhaps Gonzaga’s biggest flaw that could show up during the Final Four is they haven’t been in many close games. As mentioned, West Virginia is the only team in 30 games to lose by less than 10 points against the Bulldogs. Even when they’ve trailed, Gonzaga has seized control of games and won by a comfortable margin.

We simply don’t know how the Bulldogs will handle the pressure in the final two minutes of a close game, which is as close to a glaring weakness as Gonzaga has.

X-Factor

Everybody knows about the trio of Suggs, Kispert, and Timme, but Nembhard might be Gonzaga’s X-factor. He’s easy to forget about but gives the Bulldogs a second point guard on the floor alongside Suggs.

He’s not always hunting his own shot, which helps keep the ball moving, allowing the Gonzaga offense to flow freely. He’s also had some big games during the season. Nembhard scored 19 points in that close win over West Virginia early in the season. He also had 13 points in the comeback win over BYU in the WCC Tournament. In the Sweet 16, Nembhard dropped 17 points and eight assists against Creighton. If he has a game like that, the Zags are virtually unbeatable.

Worth Betting On?

Unfortunately, the time to bet on Gonzaga to win the national championship has passed. With four teams left, the Bulldogs have a moneyline of -250. That’s simply not enough potential payout to make Gonzaga a worthwhile bet.

For the record, it’s likely that the Bulldogs will win the title and complete an undefeated season. But we’ve seen undefeated teams reach the Final Four and lose with Kentucky doing so most recently in 2015. A potential Gonzaga-Baylor final would be close to a toss-up with the Bears also being an elite team from start to finish this season.

That creates enough doubt to stay away from a -250 bet on the Bulldogs because the risk won’t be worth the reward, even if Gonzaga feels like a safe bet.

Photo: Getty Images