When No. 1 Is a Lot Better Than No. 2
Chet Holmgren, the 7-foot Gonzaga freshman, blocked a shot, grabbed the rebound, took the ball the length of the court, dribbled around his back to lose his defender and dunked with two hands.
“This was not a shock,” Gonzaga forward Drew Timme said after the game. “It’s what we expect of him and what he expects from himself. It’s just Chet. He’s one of a kind.”
It was only one basket, and it came early in the second half, but it was emblematic of the 83-63 thrashing No. 1 Gonzaga gave No. 2 U.C.L.A. in a meeting of the nation’s two best college basketball teams on Tuesday night.
It also offered a clear glimpse of the early season gap between the top-ranked Zags (7-0) and U.C.L.A. (5-2) only months after they played a much closer game at the Final Four.
For Gonzaga, beating U.C.L.A. was a step toward its goal of being more like U.C.LA. The men’s basketball program has won 11 N.C.A.A. championships in its storied history, Gonzaga zero. The Bulldogs want some of what the Bruins have: championship banners in the rafters.
When the teams last met in April, it was in the Final Four with a spot in the national championship game on the line.
In what turned out to be the most captivating game of the N.C.A.A. Tournament, Jalen Suggs of Gonzaga banked in a 3-pointer from 40 feet to beat the buzzer in overtime and give the Bulldogs a thrilling 3-point victory. Two nights later, Gonzaga was stopped short of becoming the first team since Indiana in 1976 to complete an undefeated season with an N.C.A.A. championship when they lost to Baylor by 16 points in the title game.
When Gonzaga and U.C.L.A. met again on Tuesday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the stakes weren’t as high, and the game wasn’t nearly as close.
Four Bulldogs scored in double figures, including the senior point guard Andrew Nembhard (24 points) and the star freshman Holmgren (15 points, six rebounds and four blocks). The latter, still only 19, flashed the skill set that brought some 25 N.B.A. scouts to the game.
The scouts were thinking about next summer’s draft. Holmgren insisted he was not looking that far ahead.
“I’m worried about our team and how we can get better every single day, so that when it comes to March we’re the best we can be,” Holmgren said on ESPN. “That’s pretty much what I’m focused on.”
Gonzaga entered the game ranked second in Division I at 93.2 points a game and quickly left U.C.L.A. behind as it took leads of 16-6, 24-8 and 33-10 en route to a 45-25 halftime lead. The Bulldogs shredded the Bruins in transition, outscoring them 18-5 on fast-break points. U.C.L.A. star Johnny Juzang, the leading scorer in the N.C.A.A. Tournament, shot 5-of-11 for 11 points as Gonzaga held U.C.L.A. to 35 percent shooting.
Gonzaga may never be considered an original blue blood program like U.C.L.A., but they are a long way from the Cinderella outfit that reached their first final eight in 1999.
Now there is one goal, and anything short will be considered failure.
“We’re taking it all this year: Just be ready,” Timme, the team’s top player and a national player of the year candidate, told fans at Gonzaga’s Midnight Madness event.
Even after losing three players, including Suggs, to the N.B.A., Gonzaga is the 6-1 betting favorite to win the title in April, according to Caesars Sportsbook. U.C.L.A. is tied for second at 12-1.
It was the third time in the history of The Associated Press Top 25 poll that the No. 1 and 2 men’s and women’s teams faced off on back-to-back days. On Monday, No. 1 South Carolina beat No. 2 UConn, 73-57, in the Bahamas, and the Huskies slipped to No. 3 in the national rankings with the loss.
Under coach Mark Few, Gonzaga has reached two of the last four championship games, also losing to North Carolina in 2017. They have been in the top three of the A.P. rankings for 34 straight weeks dating to Dec. 16, 2019 and have won 30-plus games five years in a row.
The Bulldogs started the season without Few, who served a three-game suspension covering the preseason and regular season after pleading guilty to misdemeanor driving under the influence in Idaho in September. But now Gonzaga is almost a lock to extend their run of 21 straight N.C.A.A. Tournaments.
Gonzaga’s previous successes came thanks to a steady stream of N.B.A. players, many of them international prospects: Rui Hachimura (Japan), Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania) and Kelly Olynyk (Canada).
But the Zags are successfully recruiting one-and-done American prospects now, too. Suggs, a native of Minneapolis, was the No. 3 pick in this year’s draft by the Orlando Magic, and the rail-thin Holmgren, who was the No. 1 recruit in his class and Suggs’s former high school and A.A.U. teammate, is a projected top-two pick this season.
By scheduling high-profile nonconference opponents like U.C.L.A. and No. 5 Duke, Gonzaga has not only compensated for its weak league schedule but also appealed to the nation’s top recruits.
“The challenge for Gonzaga has been to break through with high-rated kids from the States,” said Eric Bossi, the national recruiting director for 247 Sports. “A big key has been going out and playing these big games, because big-time players want to make sure that they’re going to be able to get that national exposure.”
Gonzaga had already made one big statement this season with an 86-74 win over then-No. 5 Texas on Nov. 13. Now their latest big week continues Friday, when they face Duke in Las Vegas in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season.
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