Mark Few just wasn’t sure. He went back and forth, back and forth, watching the new guard go through practice. Yes, Gonzaga’s male coach could see the talent, the versatility, the flashes that made Joel Ayayi a legitimate prospect at the French sports institute. But Ayayi had come to school early, in 2017, freshly led France to third place in the European Under-18 Championships. He was young, slim, and, by his own admission, overwhelmed. “Initially, I didn’t know I would be good enough to play here,” Few says frankly four years later.
Ayayi it was Good enough, it turns out, not only to play for Gonzaga, but also to start and star in and become an unlikely catalyst for a team chasing the first undefeated season in men’s college basketball in 45 years. He’s not the Bulldogs’ leading scorer (Drew Timme, with Corey Kispert close behind), rebounder (Timme) or passer (Andrew Nembhard). He is not the best prospect in the show’s history (Jalen Suggs), nor the first retired player from the French high school (Ronny Turiaf, later Killian Tillie), nor is he likely to surpass Timme, Kispert or Suggs on the draft boards of the NBA.
And yet Ayayi might be the Zags’ most important player, even as their fourth “best” player. Suggs refers to him as “our engine”. Few point out that Ayayi does not possess an “independent ability that would make him a true lottery pick.” But, the coach adds, “Man, he just helps teams win.”
BISHOP: How Gonzaga Zagged
Few points to one particular competition as proof of concept: the season opener, Nov. 26, against Kansas on a neutral floor. The Zags had positioned their team among the contenders for the NCAA tournament the previous spring, before the global pandemic shut down all sports, ending a great chance to compete. Few describe telling his team they couldn’t compete for that elusive national title as perhaps the most difficult moment of all his decades at Gonzaga, where he started as a graduate assistant in 1989. He wondered how his team would react against the Jayhawks. , especially after a COVID-19 scare limited them to two days of practice beforehand. The coach needed someone to take control, and Ayayi arrived, scoring 15 points on just nine shots, grabbing nine rebounds despite standing 6’5 ”and adding two steals and an assist. In other words, the classic Ayayi, spearheading a victory without a doubt that heralded the upcoming special season, and not doing one thing but doing all.
Ayayi, Few says, “showed the resilience” that would come to define Gonzaga’s 2020-21 season.
For Matt Santangelo, member of the Bulldogs OG Cinderella squad, to see excuse me The Zags play basketball is the best argument that this list ranks as the best few have put together. “They’re the most dynamic, versatile, and then they have star power,” says Santangelo. Two players, above all, unite all those elements. One is Kispert, the senior forward.
The other: Ayayi, whose unlikely path began, like so many Gonzaga players, in another country. The point guard grew up in Bordeaux, before coming to the attention of French basketball officials, who added Ayayi to their development group at age 16. Of course, he knew Turiaf and also played with Tillie, so it wasn’t like he knew. nothing from Gonzaga. Ayayi saw the Zags as the main power they had become and as one of the main destinations for international prospects. “I didn’t know all this about them being a Cinderella,” Ayayi says. “I only knew them as one of the best schools in the country.”
Ayayi soon chose the Bulldogs, in large part, so that he could develop. He needed that, as Few pointed out. He wore a red T-shirt in his first season, concentrating on adding volume to his Slim Jim body. He lifted hundreds of jumpers every day, aside from practice, where he studied the Gonzaga Trail, learned to cut and slide behind screens, and play selfless basketball. He also added an element of lightness that would make him love his teammates. When teased about his diminutive stature, he dipped and flexed.
Ultimately, due to a combination of factors, notably the lack of guards on the roster and Ayayi’s development progress, the player Pocos was concerned about made his way through the team’s rotation, jumping from an average of 5.6 minutes. per game on his red jersey. the freshman season to almost 30 minutes on average last year. “We were short on guards and it was like hanging up a ‘Dishwasher Wanted’ sign,” says Travis Knight, the Bulldogs’ performance coach. “He hit great shots. He made the right play in the big moments. He also has this unwavering positivity, not just in himself but with his teammates. Suddenly the thought changed. I like, Hey, maybe this will work. “
Suggs, on his pre-pandemic recruiting visit to Spokane, couldn’t help but notice the skinny guard who wouldn’t stop barking and playing defense as if he enjoyed the less glamorous job more than scoring. “It’s crazy,” Suggs told the Zags, “but Joel is always in the right place.”
Ayayi can still remember the meeting when last season ended, how her first call was to Tillie, the French compatriot who had battled injuries during a last race, only to have the tournament canceled. “This is the last time this group will be together,” Few told his players, at which point Ayayi says she struggled to hold back tears. “That was a really huge fall,” says the guard.
Still, he kept in touch with his teammates. He became a more vocal presence in the locker room. I stayed in Spokane throughout COVID-19, about 5,000 miles from home. When it came time for mighty Kansas, Ayayi knew: he was ready and so were the Zags. Ready to win, for Few and Tillie and everyone who built a basketball oasis in a remote outpost now known as Hooptown, USA.
Ayayi improved Kispert, improved Timme, improved Nembhard. The Zags elevated seven different teammates to the West Coast Conference Player of the Week ledger. Their abilities overlap perfectly, Knight says, like a basketball Venn diagram; each was better because of the others and how they fit together. Ayayi urged her teammates to stay focused during COVID-19 outages, such as when officers were forced to cancel a highly anticipated showdown against Baylor. He stayed afterwards to work more with Suggs, an obvious candidate for the national first year of the year who could be number one in the next NBA draft.
Even when Nembhard, a top pick who wanted to transfer out of Florida, landed on Few’s radar, the coach asked Kispert, Suggs and Ayayi if they minded adding another talent that would eat up his shots, minutes and cheers. Of coursethey all responded, affirming Few’s belief that “real players fear no one.” After the Zags signed the coveted transfer, Few told his assistants that he believed they were now training a national championship hopeful. He was right in that assessment.
As the men’s Final Four begins Saturday night, Gonzaga is now two wins away from a “perfect” season, the first on a date with UCLA in Indianapolis. In an interesting twist, the Bruins – an original blue blood in the same way that Gonzaga became one of the tournament’s first favorites – now qualify as surprise seekers. Few and Ayayi and the Bulldogs are now Goliath.
The coach and his players continue to insist that an undefeated record does not matter, that they care about the title, not the glory or some nebulous debate about the best teams in the history of college basketball. But when Ayayi spoke to Illustrated Sports Earlier this season for a cover story, he admitted that he wants to help Few and this team secure their rightful place in college sports history. “Winning,” he said, “is the best way to be remembered.”
For the ease that the chase will require, few will ever turn to Ayayi, the prankster who wasn’t supposed to become a mainstay in Gonzaga, but who became one. “Incredible story,” says Few. He’s referring to Ayayi, but he could easily be talking about the Zags, the entirety of a perfectly constructed roster, or one season at once as special and bizarre as any other.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.