Five moments that defined Gonzaga's 2020-21 season

Corey Kispert's return for his senior year was vital. - ERICK DOXEY PHOTO
Erick Doxey photo
Corey Kispert's return for his senior year was vital.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

Early August isn't usually a busy time in college basketball, but due to the NBA shifting around its schedule in the wake of the pandemic, Aug. 3 wound up being one of the more important dates on the calendar. It was the deadline for players to withdraw their names from the NBA Draft and return to college.

That's what Corey Kispert did that day at 9:08 a.m., when he tweeted a 36-second hype video along with the words, "Hey Spokane... guess what." The Zags' best player would be coming back to campus for his senior year, an all-American-caliber season.

THE RICH GET RICHER

Two days before their first game of the season the Zags got news from the NCAA that Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard would be eligible to play immediately, no redshirt season required. Gonzaga had already been pegged as the top team in the country. People expected them to be better than everyone else even without Nembhard in the mix, but now the Gators' former starting point guard would be coming off the bench for Gonzaga. As the season progressed, Nembhard eventually won a starting spot and earned second team all-West Coast Conference honors.

SUGGS' IMMEDIATE IMPACT

It took less than 40 seconds for Gonzaga's freshman phenom to make his presence known. After forcing a turnover in transition, Anton Watson got the ball to Joel Ayayi, who threw up a lob that Jalen Suggs emphatically dunked home. The most highly touted recruit in Gonzaga history needed no time to adjust to the college level. Suggs put up 24 points and eight assists in his collegiate debut against the sixth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks in a marquee midday matchup televised nationally on Fox. America was put on notice — the Zags' freshman point guard was for real.

NO PRACTICE, NO PROBLEM

COVID hit the program almost immediately, and after just three games the Zags had to hit the pause button. For 17 days in December the Zags were sidelined. No games, and almost no practice. Their first challenge after that layoff would be national player of the year favorite Luka Garza and his third-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes. Gonzaga won 99-88.

In the months since, programs around the country have had to hit pause just like Gonzaga, and most have stumbled in their return to the court. Gonzaga, though, showed itself to be on a different level by blitzing one of the best teams in the country.

EVERY TEST PASSED

Gonzaga wrapped up an undefeated regular season for the first time in program history with a win over Loyola Marymount on Feb. 27. There was no fanfare and no celebration. It was business as usual despite the historic accomplishment.

Ten days later, when they staged an incredible comeback against BYU in the WCC Tournament final in which they trailed by 14 points before winning by 10, the scene was very different. After two months of demolishing every team to cross their path, the Zags finally had an iron-sharpening-iron moment. It led to them cutting down the nets, and sent them into the NCAA Tournament without a single loss. ♦

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