By Jim Meehan
Top-ranked Gonzaga opened the college basketball season looking very, very much like the No. 1 team in the country.
Corey Kispert looked like an in-season All-American after being named to the AP preseason All-America team. Drew Timme looked very much like the breakout star many have projected for his sophomore season.
Jalen Suggs lived up to – and probably exceeded – all the hype that comes with being the highest-ranked recruit in school history in his first game as a Zag. Guard Joel Ayayi was the same smooth, stat-sheet filler that he showed last season.
The Zags did it all against Kansas, one of college basketball’s storied programs. And the Zags made it look almost easy at times, at least on the offensive end, against an opponent that prides itself on toughness and stingy defense.
Gonzaga pulled away in the final 10 minutes for a wildly entertaining 102-90 victory over the sixth-ranked Jayhawks at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Florida.
The players doused coach Mark Few following the win with what he called an “ice bath” in recognition of his 600th career win.
“From the first one to this one, it’s never been about me. It’s been about the guys … and about the guys that I’ve been able to coach with,” said Few, whose team faces Auburn on Friday at 8 a.m. PT. “For this one to be against such a legendary program and legendary Hall of Fame coach (Bill Self), that will be nice someday when I look back on it.”
Kansas seemed to be looking at the back side of Gonzaga’s uniforms most of the game. The Zags’ transition game hit top speed early – Suggs’ first points coming on a dunk after a KU turnover and his second bucket after his steal and layup, all in the opening minute – as GU opened up a double-digit lead after five minutes.
Kispert poured in 11 points in a 3-minute, 40-second stretch, capped by a three-pointer that pushed him over 1,000 career points as the Zags went in front 29-15.
Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard, two days after learning his waiver to play immediately had been granted by the NCAA, lost the ball out front, scooped it up and connected on a long three-pointer just before the shot clock expired as GU led 54-46 at the break.
The Zags’ first-half stats were ridiculously efficient. They shot 68.8% from the field. Kispert and Timme combined for 34 points on 13-of-17 shooting.
“Not the happiest of Thanksgivings so far,” Self said. “We played a great team. They have four guards that will be the best guards we play all year long, and Drew is terrific. Their speed and how fast they played definitely surprised us early. Defensively, we were never really connected.”
Timme finished with 25 points, Suggs 24, Kispert 23, Ayayi 15 and Nembhard 11. Suggs had a team-high eight assists.
“Just playing patient, picking my spots, my moments,” Suggs said. “My teammates really lifted me up the whole week, they kept me calm, kept me in tune, and it really helped lift my confidence. Everybody played their part and did their role. Drew and Corey really picked up the scoring in tough moments.”
The Jayhawks’ best stretch came early in the second half. They tied it at 56 and were within 72-71 when the Zags regained command with a 13-2 run.
“I know we will not be terribly satisfied with our defense at this point of the season, but a lot of times these games early are played at that pace,” Few said. “We have guys that can score. I don’t think anyone played out of their minds or anything. They were doing all the things they’ve been doing at practice.
“It does take a high level of toughness to deliver against a team like Kansas.”
Gonzaga reached the century mark with 2:15 remaining on Ayayi’s layup off a Suggs pass. The Zags’ 102 points was the most allowed by KU since it yielded 103 to Indiana in 2016.
The Zags piled up 62 paint points. Kansas hadn’t allowed more than 46 in a game in the last 15 years, according to ESPN. Self noted that many of those points came in transition after Jayhawks turnovers.
Suggs, who got in foul trouble in the first half, scored 17 of his 24 in the second half.
“I played patient, picked my spots, picked my moments,” Suggs said.
Few said Suggs was special. “And he’s so good to coach,” he added.
Marcus Garrett led Kansas with 22 points and Ochai Agbaji added 17. Agbai picked up his fourth foul midway through the second half, which hurt the Jayhawks. When he left, Kansas trailed 70-67.
“We needed Ochai out there,” Self said. “We’re not deep enough to make up for him.”
Three non-athletes that are part of Gonzaga’s traveling party were isolating in their hotel rooms after one tested positive for the coronavirus.
A total of 112 tests were given and no players from any of the four participating teams tested positive, tournament officials said. Auburn and St. Joseph’s also are participating in the tournament.
“To get the game in was really important for our guys,” Few said. “The Kansas program and ours were consistently doing the right things. We did the protocols and tested hundreds of times. I absolutely marvel at what these guys have done. They’ve never complained.”
The way these teams played each other, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gonzaga and Kansas meet again late in the NCAA tournament, maybe the Final Four.
The Bulldogs are deep and look like they can play defense as well as any of Few’s teams. They can score from the inside and the outside.
Kansas never gives up. Not many teams in the country could get in a 14-point hole to the nation’s No. 1 team and come back to tie it. However, the Jayhawks couldn’t recover from Gonzaga’s second offensive attack.
“I thought we had a bad 25-28-minute start,” Self said. “We gave up a lot of layups, we turned the ball over. Yet we could’ve had a two- or four-point lead.”
While Suggs took over the game at times for Gonzaga, Bryce Thompson and Jalen Thompson had solid openers for Kansas, combining for 23 points.
“(Jalen) was in attack mode,” Garrett said. “He guarded well and was a competitor. Bryce had the same aggressive mindset.”
Gonzaga, which is playing four morning nonconference games in West Coast time, including top-10 matchups with Baylor and Iowa, will play Auburn on Friday at 8 a.m. PST.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.