Get ready for a college basketball season opener the likes of which we haven’t seen in ages.
A turkey day date with the Kansas Jayhawks, one of the most storied programs in all of college basketball, is how the Zags will tip off their 2020-2021 campaign. At the end of last season, the Zags sat at No. 2 in the AP Top 25 behind only, you guessed it, Kansas. In the NCAA’s official NET Rankings the order was reversed, with the Zags narrowly edging the Jayhawks for the top spot. Entering this season the gap isn’t quite as close, but it’s not large, either. Gonzaga is No. 1 in the preseason AP Poll. Kansas is No. 6. Of all the teams in the Top 25, Kansas is probably the toughest matchup for the Zags, especially right now.
The Jayhawks finished second last season in stat guru Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings. They start the season with his computers projecting yet another second place ranking. Spearheading their defensive attack is 6-foot-5 senior guard Marcus Garrett. A two-time Big 12 all-defensive team honoree, Garrett took his defensive accolades up a notch from the conference to the national level a season ago. He was named the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.
Garrett can guard the one through four spots on the floor, and last season used his versatility to shut down the opposing team’s best scoring option. This year, that’s likely Corey Kispert. But in this game, there’s a good chance we see Garrett guard true freshman Jalen Suggs. Yes, Suggs is the most highly touted prospect in Gonzaga history. Yes, he’s a big, athletic guard who can get his teammates involved as well as score at every level. Yes, he’s expected to be off to the NBA after just one season in Spokane, whereas Garrett is entering year four in Lawrence and doesn’t project to be an NBA talent.
Talk about a fascinating matchup of experience versus potential. A guy who has proven to be the best defender in Kansas history versus a player looking to prove he really is the best prospect in Gonzaga history. Is Suggs the better player? Almost certainly. Will he be ready for this kind of test on day one? I’m not so sure.
Fortunately, if this is the matchup we see on the defensive end, there shouldn’t be too much pressure on the new kid at Gonzaga. After all, last year Kansas opened its season with a loss to Duke in which the Jayhawks turned the ball over 28 times. They lost just twice the rest of the season and, as I said, ended the year No. 1 in the country.
Even in this specific game, Suggs, or whoever finds themselves guarded by Garrett, need only put together a good performance. That’s because Garrett is the only name I’ve mentioned so far for Kansas. Their two best players last season, Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson, are off to the NBA. Both of these teams lost a lot of key pieces from last year’s teams, but Kansas’ losses are bigger, and Gonzaga’s newcomers are better. That’s in part why Gonzaga sits atop the AP Poll and Kansas does not.
Gonzaga is the favorite to win this game. That said, the fact that it’s even in question is a strange feeling here in Zag Nation.
Gonzaga has won 16 consecutive season openers. Almost all of those have been blowouts. The past eight have been won by an average of 33.8 points. You have to go back to November 2011, when the Zags beat EWU 77-69, to find a remotely competitive game.
You have to go back even further, to Nov. 14, 2003, to find a loss on opening night. No. 10-ranked Gonzaga fell to No. 17-ranked St. Joseph’s in Madison Square Garden; St. Joseph’s didn’t lose a single regular season game that year, earned a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight. That was also the most recent time Gonzaga opened the season away from The Kennel.
Thursday morning they’ll take the court at a neutral site in Fort Myers, Florida. There won’t be much rest, either, as Friday they’ll face off against Auburn, which made the Final Four two seasons ago. Gonzaga hasn’t faced a start this difficult since the 1998-1999 season, the year they burst onto the national scene with their Cinderella run to the Elite Eight.
Gonzaga’s opening game that season?
You guessed it, Kansas.
Gonzaga vs. Kansas
Thursday, Nov. 26
10:30 a.m. PST
Fort Myers, Fla.
Gonzaga vs. Auburn
Friday, Nov. 27
8 a.m. PST
Fort Myers, Fla.