Gonzaga's biggest challenge this season might be finding healthy teams to play

click to enlarge Joel Ayayi is leading the team in rebounding from his shooting-guard spot. - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
Joel Ayayi is leading the team in rebounding from his shooting-guard spot.

West Coast Conference play tipped off last week with a bang, but also with a whimper. Let’s start with the former before getting into the bad news.

Gonzaga’s undefeated season continued into 2021 with an 85-62 win over a pesky San Francisco Dons squad. The Zags moved to 10-0 on the year and start conference play with a 1-0 record in league.  The first half was a closely contested battle, unlike much of what we’ve seen when Gonzaga has taken the court this season. The Dons are talented and well coached. They’re good, and they were for the first 20 minutes Saturday in The Kennel. San Francisco connected on 54% of its shots from the field in the first half. Looking at that, it would appear that Gonzaga’s defense was leaky once again — the defensive side of the ball is the only area of possible concern for the team at this point in the season.

That wasn’t the case, though. Gonzaga played a masterful defensive strategy against the Dons. San Francisco thrives behind the three-point line. Coming into Saturday’s game the Dons had taken more three pointers this season than twos. They take a lot and they tend to make a lot, 36.9 percent to be precise.

Whenever the Dons set a screen on the perimeter, typically for their sharpshooting guards Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz, the Zag defenders fought through and went over it. They didn’t let the Dons get space on the perimeter and as a result, the Dons weren’t able to get the open threes they normally find with ease. Unfortunately, the Dons simply took what Gonzaga gave them. Fighting through screens took away the three, but it opened up driving lanes for Bouyea, who scored 16 of his 18 points in the first half and doing most of his damage around the rim.

The shooting wouldn’t hold for San Francisco, however, and in the second half they fell to just 25 percent from the field.

Meanwhile, Gonzaga’s offense hummed along as it has all season, even with point guards Jalen Suggs hampered with foul trouble — he scored just five points and fouled out of the game — and Aaron Cook sidelined with a leg injury.

Corey Kispert had another monster game with 26 points. The senior wing missed just two shots from the field and only one from the free throw line. Joel Ayayi picked up his third straight double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Ayayi’s a shooting guard, but he leads the team in rebounding at eight per game.

The Zags are a well-oiled machine and at this point the only thing that looks capable of stopping them is not allowing them to get started in the first place. Which brings us to the bad news.

Loyola Marymount, Pacific, Pepperdine, San Diego and Santa Clara, fully half the teams in the league, had to pause basketball activities in recent days due to COVID-19 positives within their programs.

Of seven games scheduled for week one of conference play, only two were played. There are nine games scheduled for week two. As of now, they’re all set to go ahead as scheduled. Nothing is certain this season, though. Gonzaga, for instance, is set to play Santa Clara on Thursday in Spokane, just one week after the Broncos paused activities within their program.

As of press time, the conference hasn’t issued any official statement on this situation other than to say, on a game-by-game basis, that it is working with the programs involved to reschedule the games if possible. Which puts the future of the season somewhat in limbo. If teams can get the virus under control sooner rather than later, it’s entirely possible every game that has been postponed will be made up. It’s also possible that we could reach the end of the season with some teams having played a full 16-game schedule while others are unable to reach that mark.

What does that mean for conference tournament seeding? How will it impact NCAA Tournament selection if, say, a team with a shot at making the dance, like BYU or Saint Mary’s, isn’t able to take a crack at knocking off Gonzaga, however improbable pulling that off may be? We don’t know yet, and we might not find out for a while. All we can do in the interim is hope the games can be safely played as scheduled. Especially Gonzaga’s games.


The Zags host a 6-2 Santa Clara squad Thursday at 6 p.m. (KHQ) before traveling south to play the 6-3 Portland Pilots in the Rose City at 5 p.m. Saturday (KHQ). [UPDATE: Reports indicate that BYU will be in Spokane Thursday because Santa Clara's program is on COVID lockdown]