Three takeaways from Gonzaga’s dominant start to the season

Freshman Chet Holmgren was a serious defensive presence against Texas. - ERICK DOXEY
Erick Doxey
Freshman Chet Holmgren was a serious defensive presence against Texas.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs went 2-0 last week, with wins over Dixie State and Texas. One of those games may as well have been a scheduled win, while the other was a marquee match-up of two top-five teams. Gonzaga passed both tests with flying colors. In the season opener, Gonzaga beat Dixie State 97-63. In game two, in front of a national television audience, the Zags made easy work of No. 5-ranked Texas, winning 86-74.

Coming into the season, some things were clear about this Gonzaga team. Zag fans knew this team would be great. Another known: Junior forward Drew Timme would be among the best players in college basketball. The talent of freshman Chet Holmgren, a seven-footer who despite his size can play like a guard, also was undisputed. Holmgren was, after all, the top-rated recruit in the country among his high school class.

So, we knew some things about these Zags before the first tipoff, but what have we learned through two games? Here are three things that weren’t obvious entering the season but should have an impact on the team from now through March.


CONFIDENT WATSON


A 2019 graduate of Gonzaga Prep, Anton Watson was named Mr. Basketball in the state of Washington as a high school senior. He was as high-level of a recruit as the Spokane area had produced in recent memory. As a result, he was expected to be a key cog in Gonzaga’s attack from the moment he stepped on the floor. And, he was — until injuries hampered and ultimately derailed his freshman season.

Watson suffered through multiple dislocated shoulders in his freshman year with the Zags. By that mid-January, it was clear he needed surgery, and Watson was sidelined for the remainder of the season. Last year, as a sophomore, he remained healthy but was unable to fully recover to the level he was expected to reach as a prospect.

This year is different.

“Anton is a different player,” head coach Mark Few said after Gonzaga’s game against Texas on Saturday.


Watson has come off the bench as the Zags’ sixth man in the first two games of the season and brought with him a level of veteran leadership and confidence that elevate the Zags. So far this season Watson is averaging a career high 7.5 points per game. From the four spot on the floor, the power forward has been aggressive on the offensive and defensive ends. Watson has been a physical presence that the Zags desperately need, and he has flashed the more skillful portions of his game.

Having a confident junior coming off the bench is a luxury that should help push this Gonzaga team to new heights.

CLUTCH BOLTON

Gonzaga has a long history of bringing in transfers at the guard position. Jordan Matthews stepped into that role for Gonzaga coming from California in 2017. Geno Crandall was the guy in 2019. In 2020 both Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge filled that role. Last year it was Southern Illinois transfer Aaron Cook. This year it’s Rasir Bolton, who has played at both Penn State and Iowa State.

He might just be the best of the bunch. So far, through two games, Bolton has been right where he’s needed to be every moment he’s been on the floor.


Against Dixie State, in what was objectively a blowout win, Gonzaga struggled from beyond the arc. The Zags shot just 28.6 percent from long range in that game. Bolton, though, was three of four from deep. Most impressive among those shots was when he corralled a wayward pass along the sideline and put it up and in, as if it had been delivered directly into his shooting pocket.

In the game against Texas, Bolton picked up a loose ball near half court with two seconds left to play in the first half — a play designed to get Andrew Nembhard as time expired had worked, until Nembhard saw his shot blocked and the ball squirt out behind him — and heaved it in as the horn sounded. A buzzer beater from half-court, that wasn’t supposed to be Bolton’s, wound up banking in.

He can shoot, and he’s always in the right spot at the right time.


ELITE DEFENSE

For as long as Gonzaga has been good, which is a stretch now dating back more than two decades, the Zags have been dominant on the offensive end of the court. Whether it was Richie Frahm, Dan Dickau or Blake Stepp making it rain from three, or more recently Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Drew Timme going to work around the rim, the Zags have been able to score at an elite level. Last year’s team set the record for best two-point percentage in college basketball history at 63.9 percent.

You can count on Gonzaga’s offense.

This year, you can count on the defense, too. Esteemed statistician Ken Pomeroy has the Zags as the 13th-most-efficient defensive team in the country through two games. By my eye, that’s an underestimation.

Gonzaga held Texas, the No. 5-ranked team in the country at the time, to just 36 percent from the floor in the first half on Sunday. Chet Holmgren’s length makes it difficult to go to the rim or pass out of pressure on the block, and the size of their guards makes it tough to get up a shot on the perimeter.

The Zags have always been elite offensively, and they are once again, but they’ve also been elite defensively in the past. The 2017 team that made the Final Four for the first time in program history finished that season as the most efficient defense in the country, according to Pomeroy. Through two games, Gonzaga’s 13th in that regard. They will climb, and they have all the pieces necessary to finish first in that regard once again this season.

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