21 months after their last game in a packed kennel, the Gonzaga Bulldogs enjoyed the chance to play in front of a real crowd again en route to a comfortable 34-point win over Dixie State.
It only took a few minutes of action to realize that this is a completely new season and a very different team from last year’s edition. The Zags had three freshmen on the floor after the first media timeout, didn’t threaten the bottom of the net from the three-point line, but already had the makings of a defensive juggernaut.
Drew Timme took the first basket of the season and on a Dixie State turnover, Chet Holmgren scored on the next possession. College basketball preseason player of the year and the number one recruit in the class of 2021 to set a marker in the first minute of the season? If you were to ask most Gonzaga fans how they tipped off how they’d like to start the season before this match, they’d probably describe an opening sequence like this.
It was a dream start, but reality quickly struck. Gonzaga’s attack is not quite at the level it was at the start of last season. Of course, few teams can meet that standard, and this team is young and will have some growing pains in the coming weeks and months. What was impressive, however, was how stifling Gonzaga’s defense played in the first 15 minutes. Even taking into account the level of opposition (no offense to Dixie State), all the ingredients for a championship-caliber defense were in full view.
The backcourt has the height and athleticism to put in some serious ball pressure, and with Holmgren (and Anton Watson) patrolling the back, they’ll be encouraged to play aggressively. Holmgren, for his part, was as advertised with 7 blocks to go with 6 assists, 13 rebounds (6 offensive) and 14 points as he ripped Dixie State’s zone defense apart. It says a lot about Holmgren’s unique skills that the broadcast crew was already talking about his prospects of picking up a quadruple double sometime this season after just 15 minutes of collegiate basketball.
The absurd stats Holmgren will compile this season will be fun to watch, but how quickly this new group coalesces and Gonzaga learns to play basketball will be the key to another Final Four push. Shooting 2-13 from the three-point line with 11 conversions in the first half isn’t the brand of offensive basketball they’ve been looking for. That will be a work in progress, but for now the Zags can rely on their defenses to generate transition opportunities as they hone their offensive moves.
An 11–0 run in under two minutes into the second half, just after Dixie State narrowed its deficit to 10 points with 14 minutes left to play, demonstrated how devastating Gonzaga’s quick charge attack can be. Of course, that run was propelled by a defense that easily converted and defended the rim. If Gonzaga can maintain that level of intensity for an extended period of time, a more viable possibility with the depth of the roster this season, they will be one of the toughest teams to play in the country. However, they will also have to pass some stricter tests. Saturday comes first.