Dominant Win Over UCLA Shows Gonzaga Stands Above the Rest in 2021–22

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The Bulldogs look just as dominant as they did last season, with no team like Baylor to stand in their way.

In case there was any doubt, Gonzaga is the best team in men’s college basketball.

In the span of 10 days, the Bulldogs have beaten perhaps the most experienced top-tier team and perhaps the most talented team in the sport. And it’s not just that they’ve beaten them, but how they’ve beaten them. Games against both Texas and UCLA were never close in the final 30 minutes. At times Tuesday in Gonzaga’s 83–63 blowout, the Bruins looked more like an overwhelmed WCC team trying to keep up in conference play than a team that took the then undefeated Zags to overtime in last year’s Final Four. Right now, the Bulldogs look far above the rest of the college hoops landscape—with no truly elite team like Baylor hovering in the background to match them.

Zags players celebrate with the Empire Classic trophy after beating UCLA.

Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports

Against Texas, it was the dominance of Drew Timme that carried the day. He had 37 points and could have scored 50, had the Zags kept feeding him against a helpless Texas interior. In Tuesday’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle, the popular preseason pick for National Player of the Year was … quiet. Timme had just six first-half points when the Zags built their 20-point halftime lead, on 1-for-5 shooting, while Andrew Nembhard and Chet Holmgren stole the show.

Both secondary stars proved again what makes this Gonzaga program stand above the rest in the sport right now: an above-all-else selflessness with winning ahead of personal achievement. Holmgren heard plenty of noise after scoring just two points on a measly 1-for-3 shooting against Texas for not being able to take over a high-stakes game. He came out against the Bruins and didn’t force a thing, but wound up taking what UCLA’s defense gave him while making some highlight-reel plays along the way.

Nembhard, who last season came off the bench in half of Gonzaga’s games after starting for two years at Florida, has blossomed into the nation’s best point guard under Mark Few’s tutelage, and showed it against UCLA as he racked up 24 points and six assists. Meanwhile, the two Zags most would consider ‘next in line,’ elite freshmen Hunter Sallis and Nolan Hickman, seem perfectly content to blend in off the bench and not pout about playing time or a lack of shots.

“That’s the beauty of this program and this offense,” Timme said. “This team is so unselfish, it doesn’t matter who scores or whose night it is, we just enjoy winning.”

And so just like that, a Gonzaga team that lost a pair of top-15 picks in the NBA draft and a third fringe NBA player in Joel Ayayi looks just as dominant as it ever has. The Bulldogs have the nation’s best player (Timme), its best point guard (Nembhard), an elite NBA prospect (Holmgren) and a cast of role players more than capable of stepping up where necessary. The Zags are somehow clearly better than most around the sport had anticipated.

While there may not be an explosive guard like Jalen Suggs or an elite-level shooter like Corey Kispert on this team, it’s filled some of the (very few) holes from last year’s group. The Zags were plagued by bad defense in last year’s title game, but Timme is moving his feet better now. Holmgren is a game-changer defending the rim. Every piece fits together almost perfectly, so it’s no wonder this roster is navigating an incredibly challenging nonconference slate with relative ease. We can expect the undefeated talk to begin in earnest yet again if Gonzaga handles Duke in Vegas later this week. Right now, it doesn’t feel like the nation has a worthy challenger for Few’s team.

UCLA should, theoretically, be as equipped as anyone to beat Gonzaga. And while the Bruins certainly missed big man Cody Riley in this game on both ends of the floor, they simply looked overmatched. For a team full of experienced stars that have been on the biggest stage before to look so utterly helpless was jarring. The few times the Bruins’ play got the UCLA fans at T-Mobile Arena re-engaged, the Zags broke down UCLA's defense for easy baskets to end any threat.

“We didn’t offer much in the way of resistance,” Mick Cronin said postgame.

Cronin made clear that the Bruins, despite featuring largely the same roster, were not the same UCLA team that took the Zags to the wire some 234 days before. His criticism of his team’s defense was blunt and pointed, saying the group was a long way away from the elite expectations heaped on their shoulders in the preseason. Still, it didn’t feel like even his team’s best effort on both ends would have won them Tuesday’s game, nor did it seem like any team’s would have.

Nembhard (No. 3) scored a game-high 24 points on Tuesday.

Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports

Texas’s collection of college stars in a new home looked quite ordinary next to the Zags’ best five. It’s hard to believe Duke will look in any significant way different against them. Maybe another older team like Kansas or Villanova could give the Zags a run for their money, but each lacks the top-end talent Few’s Bulldogs have. One could probably talk themselves into Purdue’s burly front line giving the slender Holmgren trouble, or Baylor’s athleticism and length doing similar things to the Zags that it did in last year’s national title game, but Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell aren’t walking through that door in Waco. If the narrative of last season was “It’s Gonzaga and Baylor, then everyone else,” then this year’s narrative, less than a month in, is clearly “It’s Gonzaga, then everyone else.”

So yes, you’ll hear skepticism about Gonzaga and Few in March until they cut down the nets one April. The program’s history in the Big Dance, including last year’s disappointing blowout loss to the Bears in the national title game, means only a championship can stop that discourse. But right now, Gonzaga looks like the nation’s best team by a clear margin—and it’s hard to say there’s anyone that can realistically stand in its way when it plays like it has through two weeks. 

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