In Mark Few’s 24 seasons as head coach, Gonzaga has become entrenched as a national power in men’s college basketball. His Bulldogs have dominated the West Coast Conference, winning 21 regular-season crowns and 18 conference-tournament titles, and they’ve become a perennial national championship contender with two Final Fours and No. 1 seeds in five of the last six years — including the No. 1 overall seed in last season’s NCAA Tournament.
Still, every season, the Zags must begin anew and work to match the high standard that defines the program. Despite having key players back from last season’s 28-4 squad, the 2022-23 edition of Gonzaga basketball has experienced some early season growing pains toward continuing the Bulldogs legacy, losing twice to top-25 teams (then-No. 11 Texas and then-No. 24 Purdue) during a 5-2 start.
Gonzaga, ranked second behind No. 1 North Carolina in the preseason, has fallen to 14th in the latest AP Top 25 rankings.
“There's a huge, huge target on your back each and every night you step on the floor in a Gonzaga jersey,” said Jalen Suggs, the Orlando Magic guard who earned second-team All-American honors in his lone season at Gonzaga. “If you don't come out and meet the challenge head on and throw the first punch, it is gonna spell trouble. You start to drop the ones that you should win.”
Drew Timme — who was part of Gonzaga’s big three with Suggs and Corey Kispert (now with the Washington Wizards) in 2020-21, when the Bulldogs went 31-1 and were one win way from a perfect season and the school’s first national title — returned to school for a fifth season to form a new Zags star trio with junior guard Julian Strawther and senior guard Rasir Bolton.
Aside from the NBA departures of Suggs and Andrew Nembhard, the roster is quite similar to the one that lost to Baylor in the national championship game two seasons ago. Strawther, a smooth ballhandler with the ability to shoot the 3-pointer off the dribble, knows the Gonzaga system better than almost anyone on the squad but is known to be silenced by defenses from time to time.
The 6-foot-7 Strawther is averaging 14.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.3 steals. He can also be turnover-prone (2.6 per game).
“He’s got to be solid,” Few said after Strawther’s four turnovers in Gonzaga’s 93-74 loss at Texas. “When he doesn’t turn the ball over, we seem to be in a lot better position.”
Suggs believes Strawther's growth from not seeing a lot of minutes during their freshman year to becoming one of Gonzaga’s most important players is a testament to his work ethic.
“You can see during the game and out of timeouts that he's using his voice a lot more,” Suggs said of Strawther, who declared for the NBA Draft in April but chose to withdraw his name. “He was always a great teammate, somebody that people always respect and like to be around. It is good to see that progression from him.”
Timme also has grown in the Zags system. The 6-10 forward has had some remarkable success, leading the Bulldogs in scoring and earning All-America honors the past two seasons, and the unanimous preseason All-America pick is averaging a team-best 20.0 points on 62.1% shooting this season while yet again drawing most of the opponent’s defensive attention.
Bolton has emerged as the third key player and a reliable scoring threat, averaging 13.0 points and shooting 48.3% on 3-pointers. In Gonzaga’s 88-72 win over then-No. 4 Kentucky, he scored a season-high 24 points including four 3s. When Bolton plays with a score-first mentality, the Bulldogs can reach another level due to his ability to shoot them out of a slump.
The Zags, who’ve overcome a turnover problem that saw them average 17.5 turnovers in their first four games, have the playmakers to reach the Final Four. But like every season, the journey getting there will be a challenge. Because Gonzaga will always get the opponent’s best effort due to what the program has become under Few and the basketball talent he keeps bringing to Spokane, Washington.
For Suggs, the Bulldogs mindset never changes. “Come in early, locked in, ready to go, with that competitive fire and that edge (to set) the tone of how the game is gonna be played,” he said.