Gonzaga's long been known as a team loaded with international players. Or as a program that uses redshirt years to turn relatively unknown players into breakout stars. It used to be called Guard U for its string of great point guards, and then it became known for the big men it's sent to the NBA nearly every year of late.
Equally important to those successes, though, have been the players transferring to Gonzaga after starting their college careers elsewhere. Two seasons ago it was Geno Crandall. Last year it was the duo of Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge. And this season it's been Andrew Nembhard and Aaron Cook. They're all guards who were stars for their previous teams, but came to Gonzaga and accepted smaller roles in exchange for team success and a shot at a deep run in March.
"I think it speaks to the way we put our arms around guys who are new here, whether you're a freshman or you're a transfer," senior Corey Kispert says. "I think both of those guys [Cook and Nembhard] would say they felt welcome right away and have kind of found a family in Spokane."
Nembhard, who started for the Florida Gators before coming to Gonzaga, said exactly that.
"The family environment," Nembhard says. "I really realized that right when I stepped on campus because of the way the guys interact with each other and how they brought me in."
Not long after making that realization, Nembhard was handed a surprise that he worried could disrupt the balance within that family.
Cook, a graduate transfer from Southern Illinois, knew he'd be able to play this season. But Nembhard, a junior, would be required by NCAA rules to sit the season out. The Zags appealed to the NCAA for a waiver, and just two days before the first game of the season, the NCAA granted it, allowing Nembhard to join this year's squad.
"I think he was so cognizant of not stepping on guys' toes," head coach Mark Few says of Nembhard. "He could see that there was a special team here, and some pretty identifiable core people in it, and he was very concerned he didn't want to mess with that."
The NCAA's decision gave the Zags three starting-caliber point guards, and Nembhard was the newest of the bunch. For most of the season, he and fellow point Cook came off the bench. By February, though, Nembhard had played his way into the starting lineup.
Averaging 9.2 points and 4.2 assists per game, Nembhard has become one of the key cogs in Gonzaga's vaunted offensive attack.
"Now that he's been around them enough and enjoyed his own success and understands what we need him to do, I think he's become more offensively aggressive, and even defensively," Few says.
When starting point guard Jalen Suggs missed time with an injury suffered against West Virginia, in the closest game the Zags have played this regular season, Nembhard stepped up and scored 19 points and had six assists off the bench. His offensive prowess has led to the lineup of himself, Suggs, Joel Ayayi, Kispert and Drew Timme — a small lineup with only one traditional big man — to be referred to as Gonzaga's "death lineup."
For Cook, the impact has been mostly on the other side of the ball. Much like Geno Crandall two years ago, Cook was a critical starter for a mid-major program. He averaged over 10 points per game across his sophomore and junior years before an injury sidelined him for most of last season. At Gonzaga, he's averaging just 4.4 points per game but has become arguably the team's best perimeter defender.
When he's had the chance to show off his offensive game, though, he's done so in impressive fashion, like in February against San Diego when, on back-to-back possessions, he threw down explosive dunks. In a normal season with fans in the building, those 30 seconds would have seriously tested the structural integrity of the Kennel. He's a high-flying player who fits perfectly in Gonzaga's high-flying style of play.
"It speaks to the brand of basketball we play on the floor and how easy it is to fit into it," Kispert says of the transfers. "You just have to do what you're best at, and the rest will take care of itself."
Whether it's because of the family atmosphere, the style of play, or probably both, Nembhard and Cook have excelled at doing what they do best, like the transfers who came before them. They've come into a program, in the weirdest season possible, and fit right in. The rest has taken care of itself.
"We have a standard we hold ourselves to every day, and we just talk about being us," Nembhard says. ♦
Gonzaga plays Creighton in the Sweet 16 on Sunday at 11:10 am on CBS.