Gonzaga beats Texas: What we learned and what it could mean in March

The top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs recorded an impressive 86-74 victory over the No. 5 Texas Longhorns in Spokane, Washington on Saturday night, with Mark Few’s team reinforcing their position as men’s college basketball’s team to beat in one of the highly anticipated matchups of the opening week of the 2021-22 season. One day after UCLA took down Villanova in a top-5 thriller, Zags/Horns did not quite match the entertainment value or intensity of Bruins/Wildcats, but the way Gonzaga’s victory played out nonetheless had important implications as observers attempt to stack the game’s national title contenders. The play of Gonzaga and Texas will continue to serve as a national talking point, as both teams appear destined for deep March runs — journeys that just might see them face each other again on the NCAA tournament stage.

With that in mind, ESPN’s college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi weighed in on the finer points of the Zags’ victory, including the performances of top Bulldogs Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren and the way forward for a newcomer-laden Texas team that remains a talented work in progress.

Gonzaga looked all-powerful on Saturday. What is similar about this team to last season’s Zags, based on what you saw against Texas, and what’s different? Are the changes significant in respect to Gonzaga’s national title ambitions?

The Bulldogs did look all-powerful for much of the night and, to be sure, Texas helped that happen to a certain extent. One good way to slow down the Zags offense is to make your own shots, but the Longhorns struggled to string together scores until they mounted a nice run in the second half.

Speaking of all-powerful, Timme (career-high 37 points) was unstoppable. This is the part of Gonzaga that’s the same as last season, of course, and it’s good to take the floor knowing your featured scorer can go for 30-plus points while missing very few shots. The Bulldogs run their offense through Timme, and he doesn’t have to be in the paint to do what he does. He’s comfortable giving dribble hand-offs and screening for open shooters on the perimeter.

Another thing that’s the same as last season is rock-steady guard play from Andrew Nembhard. He’s the main generator of assists in this offense, and he will get plenty of opportunities to pad those totals.

We presume that Chet Holmgren will be one thing that’s different this season even though the Zags didn’t need him to score against UT. Conversely, Iowa State transfer Rasir Bolton did put up points and he looks like he will fit in nicely in Spokane. True, Gonzaga’s defensive rebounding against Texas was only fair. But with Timme, Nembhard, Holmgren and Bolton, this is a team that can win it all.

— John Gasaway

What did we learn about the dynamic frontcourt duo of Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren on Saturday night? How did Texas defend / attack them and is it a sign of things to come for the Zags?

I think the most important thing we learned is that Timme is the favorite to win national player of the year in Las Vegas and the only unanimous selection on the Associated Press preseason All-America team for a reason. On that stage against a top-five opponent on Saturday, he outclassed everyone, including Holmgren, when he scored 22 points in the first half of a game against a Longhorns squad that had just 27 points at the break.

Holmgren (2 points, 5 rebounds) was mostly passive and timid in the game. He looked like a freshman playing in his first significant matchup. Tre Mitchell pushed him off the block a few times in their battles for rebounds. He was scoreless in the first half. But I also think he helped Timme with his ability to play from the perimeter and draw defenders. Most teams would ignore a 7-footer camping out in the corner as the ball is moving around the court. But Holmgren is a threat because of his shooting ability and ball-handling skills. With about 1:35 to play in the first half, Holmgren took the inbounds pass, nearly dribbled the length of the court and dumped it off in the post to Timme, who drew a foul. That’s just a complicated assignment for any opponent. Which big man do you try to stop? Holmgren also altered shots on defense in an effort that will probably be respected more by the analytics than the raw numbers.

Holmgren also showed his defensive weaknesses, though. In the second half, Texas attacked him and did what they could to get him off his feet. It worked. He was in foul trouble in the second half. I think we’ll see more of that in the future. Teams will try to lure Holmgren and Timme away from the rim and draw those fouls to get them out of the game, which is exactly what Texas did against Gonzaga in the second half. I’m not sure how many teams will be able to stop the two when they’re on the court together. Although it wasn’t a great offensive effort, Holmgren proved he could make an impact on the game without scoring. Texas was always slow to double Timme, despite his strong start, because of Holmgren’s presence. Timme wasn’t perfect (see: four turnovers). But the skill around him will make it difficult to double him and that should also create opportunities for Holmgren and others.

It’s also clear that Mark Few does feel compelled to use them together. Holmgren will have to find ways to make an impact while playing next to Timme. I also don’t think he has to be consumed by that idea because there will be multiple stretches this season when only one of the two is on the floor. This is Timme’s squad, though. That was clear in the win on Saturday.

— Myron Medcalf

There were big questions entering the season about what Chris Beard’s Texas rotation would look like and who might be the odd man / men out. Did the Gonzaga game provide answers?

Yes and no. On one hand, we might not get a true look at how Beard will dole out minutes until Vanderbilt transfer Dylan Disu is fully healthy and is ready for game competition. He’s been slowly working himself back after undergoing knee surgery last February. Once he is good to go, Disu will add high-level rebounding ability to Texas’ frontcourt, as well as another player who can score on the interior.

Against Gonzaga, Beard was clearly searching for something to slow down Timme — and that’s demonstrated by the minutes shuffle. Christian Bishop started at the 5, but wasn’t much of a factor in the second half. Tre Mitchell came off the bench to begin the game, but started the second half down low. Timmy Allen and Brock Cunningham ended up playing the most minutes of any of the frontcourt players, with Beard going much smaller for stretches. Both Allen and Cunningham played more minutes on Saturday than they did in the season-opening win over Houston Baptist, so it’s going to be a game-by-game trend to track.

On the perimeter, the surprise has been Jase Febres from a minutes perspective. Returnees Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones, along with high-level Minnesota transfer Marcus Carr, were expected to earn the bulk of the minutes and that’s been the case — but Febres isn’t far behind. One of the best shooters on the team, Febres actually played more minutes than Jones on Saturday, with most of them coming in the second half when Texas cut into Gonzaga’s lead.

While Texas’ rotation is going to be scrutinized all season, it’s also worth noting Mark Few has two five-star guards coming off the bench in Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis. There’s not another team in the country that can say that. On Saturday, Hickman played an extended second-half role after scoring 11 points off the bench in the opener, while Sallis saw four first-half minutes against Texas. The duo’s development over the course over the season will be something to monitor.

— Jeff Borzello

What are the likely Bracketology implications of this result for current 1-seed Gonzaga? For current 2-seed Texas? How is the NCAA selection committee likely to analyze a result from Nov. 13 in March?

Gonzaga’s convincing victory does nothing but affirm the Bulldogs as the nation’s top team. A loss may have caused a swap of No. 1 overall seeds — Kansas? UCLA? — but that’s no longer an issue heading into the second week of the season. The Zags enter a cushy stretch of three games they cannot lose before embarking on Thanksgiving Week tests against UCLA and Duke in Las Vegas.

As for Texas, the Longhorns went to Spokane as a 2-seed (No. 8 overall) but drop to a 3-seed following their defeat. Obviously there is plenty of time for the Horns to re-enter the conversation for a better seed, but Texas doesn’t play another meaningful game this month. Five straight cupcakes — Northern Colorado, San Jose State, Cal Baptist, Sam Houston and UT Rio Grande — aren’t going to move the needle.

The bottom line is that big November games matter, but only as one slice of a very large pie. For now, the top seeds remain Gonzaga, Kansas and UCLA in whatever order you prefer, plus Michigan. No change from opening night, in other words. The Zags, as was the case last year, could very well be a projected 1-seed all season. The committee will pay closer attention to later results from work-in-progress teams like Texas.

— Joe Lunardi

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