INDIANAPOLIS – If you’re in a rush here and want to know how Gonzaga made it to the Men’s Final Four, which you probably expected them to do, you should know that Drew Timme ran out of new celebrations midway.
The Bulldogs took a 20-point lead shortly after the second half, working their way through an out-of-bounds baseline play that began with Corey Kispert rolling into the corner, but instead sent the ball to Jalen Suggs, who He faked multiple Trojans with a brief hesitation and found Timme diving into the paint for a two-handed dunk.
The next part has become as predictable as Gonzaga’s remarkable dominance, which has been held almost unchecked for months, with an 85-66 victory over USC now in the rearview mirror. Timme’s index fingers traced the outline of his ubiquitous furry mustache, cleaning under both nostrils for emphasis (not cleaning) and ending with a point towards the sky. He had already done this once, early in the game, the Bulldogs were already hurtling toward the finish line. He followed the next cubes of the first half with a shrug and a flex of his right bicep.
Whoever the Bulldogs face on Saturday, whether it’s Michigan or UCLA, will be the favorites. Cross it out and they will play the winner of Baylor and Houston, in which they will also be the favorites. It should come as no surprise that Gonzaga is still here in Indianapolis defending his overall seed. Yet somehow, it seemed like Timme never thought of expanding his repertoire of extra celebrations, even when he finished with 23 points, five rebounds and four assists.
“Drew wants to go toe-to-toe with the best of the best,” Corey Kispert told reporters earlier in the week. “All the facial hair and the laughs and the laughs and the celebrations aside, Drew is a dog.” At this point, a light rehearsal can be a good use of Timme’s hotel downtime before Saturday. “[Drew] It gets us going, ”Jalen Suggs said after the game. “He turns us all on.” Sitting down for his press conference, Suggs punctuated his point with a brief pause and a laugh, to mimic Timme’s signature celebration.
It may have been that Timme’s much-diagnosed showdown with USC’s Evan Mobley turned into a personal affront to the Tao of the Stache, which has evolved from a light trick to a perhaps convincing manifestation of his mojo. Throughout four games of the tournament, Timme has dominated all participants with his soft touch, quiet footwork, and understanding of his place at the center of a historically great offense.
Gonzaga revolves around Timme, but not always through him. The Zags can take him to the center, let Jalen Suggs work downhill, or execute Kispert through actions away from the ball. If they feel like it, they can do some or all of these things at the same time. Joel Ayayi and Andrew Nembhard are there to spin the ball and improvise. While building what is arguably the largest college program on the West Coast, Mark Few has always played for his staff. “This team plays better without sets,” Few told reporters Sunday. “Our flow is probably the best thing we do.” The Bulldogs small ball team is his best team and his best work yet.
The way the Zags pass the ball is part innate, part custom. At early season practices, Few and his staff saw the way his guys were sharing it. “It’s fun,” Kispert said Sunday, “because we do what we are best all day long.” The staff set up exercises and warm-ups to cultivate that part of the group’s identity. “They really, really accepted it,” Few said.
Through four NCAA tournament games, Gonzaga has assisted 83 of 129 shots from the field, while turning the ball only 46 times. He has won all four games by at least 15 points. Few made it clear that their perhaps refreshing team would allow themselves to be content, at least for now. “This is something that should be celebrated, and we should take the time to enjoy it to the fullest,” he said.
The initial pressure on the ball began when 6-foot-10 “Timme nimbly switched to 6-foot-2 Tahj Eaddy on the first play of the game, then stripped him naked, walked the court and committed a major foul on Mobley. (“He really enjoys those moments,” says Few). Gonzaga took advantage of almost every mistake and held a 17–4 lead. In search of answers, Andy Enfield turned away from the zone’s defense from the mad scientist who helped his Trojans get this far in the tournament.
By the time they got back to it, it didn’t matter. “When Timme is playing as well as he is tonight on the court, and his shooters and his ball handling, his speed is very hard. [to handle]Enfield said. The Bulldogs played their way. They were never left behind. “We were moving in unison,” Suggs said.
Without exception, the most dramatic moment of the night came five minutes into the game, when Officer Bert Smith collapsed directly in front of Gonzaga’s bench and hit the ground hard. Medical personnel attended to him immediately, he was awake when he was taken off the court and was said to be alert and stable shortly thereafter. That news came as a great relief to both teams and to all observers.
But in that short, terrifying silence, as Smith received attention, Bulldogs assistant Tommy Lloyd, who had been the first at Smith’s side, could be heard speaking in Gonzaga’s group. He concluded his spiel with a strong message to his players. “Trust each other and get a great opportunity.” All season long, they have made it look as simple as it sounds.
The undefeated, top-seeded Zags are two wins away from the great thing that they have convinced everyone they can do. Kispert, Gonzaga’s only senior, expressed a broader view on the matter over the weekend. “Even though there is a huge backlog of these great games coming up,” he said, “we are not on airplanes, we are not back in Spokane and everyone is telling us how great we have been. It just feels like business as usual. It makes it easy to focus on the present and be in the moment. ”
Whichever way this unusual season ends, there’s a week left, tops. And in the world outside this strange and condensed basketball bubble, expectations are certainly heavier than Few, or Kispert, or any of them let on. You wonder if anyone has told them yet.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.