College basketball 2022-23 countdown: No. 2 Gonzaga

Editor’s Note: John Fanta is counting down his top 15 college basketball teams before the start of the 2022-23 season. Check-in at #2 is Gonzaga.

Few in college basketball have it better than Mark Few. He has built a dynasty in Spokane that has been an unstoppable freight train and has only accelerated in the last half decade. The Bulldogs, who have been to the NCAA Tournament every season there has been one since 1999 (it was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19), will once again be fighting for the one thing they lack: a national championship.

Gonzaga is 192-18 over its past six seasons and hasn’t lost more than five games in a campaign since 2015-16. The Bulldogs have won at least 28 games in 10 straight seasons and have made seven straight Sweet 16 appearances. To go one step further, the Zags haven’t endured a double-digit losing season in 11 years.

The ridiculous numbers associated with this program go on and on, and as Gonzaga enters 2022-23, there’s no reason to believe the Bulldogs will slow down.

American Drew Timme is back for his senior season. A couple of other starters, Julian Strawther and Rasir Bolton, look poised to take on even bigger roles. Reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year Malachi Smith transferred to the program along with former LSU great Efton Reid. To add to all of this, the Zags have a couple of highly touted former recruits who will have an open door for them to step up with Andrew Nembhard and Chet Holmgren gone.

While those two talents are certainly hard to replace, the Bulldogs return everyone else in the core. There’s certainly a case for them being the preseason No. 1 team in the country (no, don’t overreact to an exhibition loss to Tennessee), and the Zags could spend some time in that No. 1 spot this season.

If you argue that the Bulldogs don’t play in as tough a conference as others, Pocs does his best to combat that. Gonzaga will play Michigan State, Texas, Kentucky, Purdue or West Virginia (PK 85), Baylor, Alabama and possibly Duke on its non-conference slate. This is another non-conference gauntlet for Gonzaga, and the only one of those games to be played in Spokane comes against Kentucky, part of a new six-year streak agreed upon by Few and John Calipari.

There are certain things the Zags need to figure out if they want to become a national championship caliber team. But then again, so does everyone else. That’s just part of life in a college basketball marathon. What’s surprising about this is that Gonzaga seems to be in this position every season.

Here’s a breakdown of what to look for on the list.

Who’s back for the Zags?

It all starts with Timme, who is 90-7 at Gonzaga. The 6-foot-10 Texan averaged 18.4 points and 6.8 rebounds last season on 59 percent shooting from the floor, and we can only wonder what’s in store for him in his senior year. He has already shattered Gonzaga’s program records for points, field goals made and free throws made in the NCAA Tournament. Having it back in Spokane is outstanding for college basketball and another positive outcome of having NIL in college sports.

Strawther’s development at the wing position is one of the biggest storylines for Gonzaga. The 6-foot-7 junior will have the ball in his hands more often and can present matchup problems for opposing teams. His versatility is a big strength for Few, and his length makes him a favorable defender for the Zags. One of his best offensive attributes is a floaty game that has really come on.

Can Strawther go from a guy who averages 11.8 points to one who scores 15-16 points a night? This is Few’s level of expectation.

Then there’s Bolton, a 6-foot-3 fifth-year senior who averaged 11.2 points on 50 percent shooting from the floor and 46 percent from 3-point range last season. As one of the top shooters in the country, he provided flurries of scoring for the Zags in big spots, with 16 points against Texas, 15 against Texas Tech and 17 in a win over Memphis in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Bolton’s experience and ability to create in transition gives the Zags an edge in fast-break scenarios. He’ll look to maintain his late-season consistency — 13.1 points per game over his last six games.

Timme, Strawther and Bolton are the known wares. But it’s a pair of sophomores, guards Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis, who could end up determining just how good the Zags are.

Hickman, a former four-star recruit from Seattle, will count on taking over the role that Nembhard held as the team’s primary ball handler. What he does at the point guard position may be the biggest factor in Gonzaga’s season because he has shoes to fill and his role was limited in his freshman season.

As for Sallis, we’ll see if the 6-foot-5 wing can find his groove in a backup role. The hope is that he can serve as an X-factor in his second season.

The other returnee to control is 6-foot-8 forward Anton Watson. The senior scored in double figures 13 times last season, averaging 7.3 points and 4.7 boards per game while shooting over 59 percent from the floor. He has started in all four slots in both exhibition games so far this fall, along with Timme, Bolton, Strawther and Hickman.

Who’s new on the list?

The 6-foot-7 Smith, who shined in Chattanooga last season and carried the Mocs to the NCAA Tournament, was one of the top transfer additions in the country last offseason. Averaging 19.6 points, 6.3 boards and 4.3 assists, Smith’s ball handling and playmaking ability should make a big impact on Gonzaga’s identity. With the unknown of what Hickman will do in the point guard slot, Smith could make a big impact and give Few another option to handle point guard duties.

Although he reached a different level, the SoCon is one of the best mid-major leagues in the country and Smith should be able to handle the transition to Spokane well. He was the only Division I basketball player last season to record at least 600 points, 200 rebounds, 50 assists, 50 steals and 50 3-point field goals during the 2021-22 season.

The other impact transfer, Reid, is a 7-footer who may allow Few to change the look of Gonzaga and play bigger with him and Timme on the floor together. In his one season at LSU, Reid averaged 6.3 points and 4.3 boards in 19.6 minutes per game on 52 percent shooting. With Few’s history of developing bigs like Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev, Domantas Sabonis, Przemek Karnowski and others, Reid is sure to improve in his second season of college basketball. It looks like at least to start the season, Reid will be the first player off the bench.

For more on how Few can handle minutes, check out the box score from the Zags’ exhibition win over Division II Warner Pacific on Wednesday night.

The key questions the Zags need to answer…

How will Gonzaga fare with rim protection? That’s a big question with Holmgren gone, as the unicorn had 117 blocks in his only year in Spokane. That mark tied for the most in a single season in program history. We’ll see how Timme, Reid and Watson handle the interior defense, but there’s no question the Zags will be much easier to attack inside with the reigning WCC Defensive Player of the Year.

The other big question shouldn’t come as a surprise based on what we discussed above: What about the Zags at the point guard position? Will Hickman make the planned second-project jump, or will Smith grab the car keys and take over the playing duties?

It’s an interesting situation for Few to navigate, and it’s not like Gonzaga’s schedule leaves much time to figure things out. Having Strawther and Bolton back is huge for this program, but setup man will be a key question to answer.

The general picture

The Zags have reloaded and will enter March with another shot at capturing that elusive national title. The questions in the baseline are there and the defensive identity of this team will need to grow, but this team should once again be one of the best in the country. The return of Timme was a huge decision, and the transfer additions of Smith and Reid were quality picks.

The Zags remain in the title conversation, and while I don’t feel as good about this Gonzaga team as the previous two, you know this team will have as good a chance as any to successfully navigate March Madness.

Outstanding programming

  • Friday, November 11: Michigan State (USS Abraham Lincoln, San Diego, CA)
  • Wednesday, November 16: in Texas
  • Sunday, November 20: Kentucky (Spokane Arena)
  • Friday, November 25: PK85 Invitational Final (Duke, FL or Xavier – Portland, OR)
  • Friday, December 2: Baylor (Sanford Pentagon, Sioux Falls, SD)
  • Friday, December 9: Washington
  • Saturday, December 17: Alabama (Birmingham, AL)
  • Thursday, January 12: at BYU
  • Saturday February 4: in Santa Maria
  • Saturday, February 11: BYU
  • Saturday February 25: Santa Maria

Top 15 Countdown:

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers sports in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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