In victory over 11th-ranked West Virginia, No. 1 Gonzaga overcomes adversity and cements its lofty expectations

The day before Easter break in my final year at Gonzaga, I headed to the basketball team’s offices to interview Jerry Krause, the program’s director of operations, for a profile that would run in the student paper. It was prove to be the most rewarding interview I’ve ever conducted.

I was prepared to do the standard twenty-minute Q&A for a snappy piece, but that notion was banished once Krause started talking. Two hours later, I looked down at my tape recorder in disbelief. I shook his hand, headed outside. There’s a special sort of feeling you get walking a campus on the day before a holiday. The students have mostly emptied out; it’s quiet as you amble along—even better when spring is in the air. You’re young; years later you’ll realize you rarely felt more alive and alert to the possibilities of life than in that moment.

That interview provided an important message about the ways in which sport can help a man develop the discipline necessary to inform his life’s ambition. That had been Krause’s tale; a n’er-do-well who got his act together and devoted himself to the game of basketball. He spoke of the way Gonzaga had become a home to him, a sentiment that was often shared among other members of the coaching staff. Held true for the women’s team coaches, too. It was fascinating stuff to a guy like me, who’d really struggled to feel at home in that place.

Something Krause said about the program has stuck with me. (This was the spring of 2012.) There had been players in recent years who hadn’t embodied the program’s values. Now, Krause said, they were getting back to it. To wit: Kelly Olynyk, who would become a sensation the next season, sat on the bench next to Krause during the ‘11–12 campaign, which he redshirted, and helped chart in-game statistics.

Gonzaga has transformed into a perennial contender for the national title, joining a very select group in college basketball. This season, they added Jalen Suggs, a 6'4" freshman point guard, who is the highest-rated recruit in program history. He has provided a new dimension for the Zags at point, seen so convincingly in those opening two wins at the Fort Myers Tip-Off last week. Great guards have been a program staple since Mark Few took over head coaching duties in ’99; but it’s fair to say they’ve never had the likes of Suggs, who is all but guaranteed to be a top-3 pick in the NBA draft when he turns pro next spring.

Which made it all the more terrifying on Wednesday night, during a neutral-court tilt with perennially rugged West Virginia, when Suggs skidded awkwardly and crumpled, nursing his left ankle. He limped off the court with two staffers serving as crutches—in fact, I remember a worried Few serving as one of them—with what was initially feared to be a devastating lower leg injury (Holly Rowe, doing courtside reporting for ESPN, whispered the dreaded “Achilles” as Suggs limped off).

Stepping into the void with studious aplomb was Andrew Nembhard, the high-profile Florida transfer—himself a 6'4" point guard—who found out two days before Gonzaga’s first game that he had been granted a waiver to play this season. Nembhard finished with 19 points, six assists, and five rebounds to help the Zags win 87–82.

Even more important than his production, which was notable, was the manner in which Nembhard calmed the collective nerves of both his team and, you’d have to think, Gonzaga fans during the span that Suggs was off the court, from roughly seven minutes left in the first half to his shocking return four minutes into the second.

With one ESPN camera fully focused on the Bankers Life Fieldhouse tunnel, where Suggs quickly graduated from limping gingerly on that left leg to performing increasingly strenuous exercises, Nembhard quietly went about his work. He played a game-high 35 minutes, exuding moxie and rallying his charges, who seemed visibly rattled both by Suggs’s injury and West Virginia’s physicality. (The Mountaineers out-rebounded the Zags 41–36.)

What is perhaps most intriguing about Nembhard’s priceless production is the thought that the Zags might have been forced to go without him this season. Apparently that had been the plan, and even when Nembhard was granted that waiver, Few asked his new charge if he felt comfortable playing this season.

Considering that the only real alternative at point guard is Aaron Cook, a graduate transfer from Southern Illinois who has been solid, if a bit uncertain, in his brief appearances throughout the first three games, one wonders just how heavily that Suggs injury might have dampened Gonzaga’s expectations of contending for a national title, had Nembhard not been waiting in the wings.

Of equal importance to Nembhard was Joel Ayayi, a smooth 6'5" swingman in his fourth year in the program. Ayayi led all scorers with 21 points, and added seven rebounds, four assists, and four steals. Few perimeter players I’ve seen are savvier finishers around the basket; I’ve lost count of the number of times Ayayi has lost his defender with a well-timed backdoor cut on the baseline for a reverse layup.

Against the Mountaineers, Ayayi’s production helped cover for fellow stars Drew Timme and Corey Kispert, both of whom endured sluggish first halves. (Timme had just three points at the break, on 1-of-9 shooting. Kispert had seven. They finished with 17 and 19, respectively.)

It was telling, as I typed out this piece with the ESPN box score in another tab, that a game highlight began running. On the call was Jay Bilas, who noted that Gonzaga’s depth, in recent years, has become one of the biggest reasons for its sustained excellence. Few and his staff develop the players who come through, and they are perhaps unparalleled among elite programs in their use of redshirts.

As I watched yet another masterclass of interior passing—every player seems to excel in this department—I thought back to Krause’s meditation upon the program’s insistence of getting guys who buy in. You can’t teach culture, and you can’t fake camaraderie. Gonzaga plays well together, and they produce an attractive brand of collective basketball—which, let’s be honest, in the era of ad nauseum pick-and-pop offense, is a welcome change of pace.

But as is always the case in a Gonzaga basketball season, there’s no time to rest. On Saturday, the Zags face No. 2 Baylor. Nembhard, and probably Suggs too, for that matter, will be ready. It’s just what this program does.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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