Top-Ranked Zags to Make Early Statement as Faves vs Kansas

College basketball has returned, and while a number of scheduled high-profile games may not occur this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still many matchups to look forward to on the way to March Madness. One of the most anticipated early non-conference tilts takes place Thursday afternoon as preseason No. 1 Gonzaga takes on perennial contender and No. 6-ranked Kansas.

How Will Gonzaga Handle the Hype?

Will this be the year the Bulldogs finally win it all? Mark Few has had many teams that were hyped as contenders.

There is a reason this team comes in with so much hype, despite losing four of their top six scorers. All-American and West Coast Conference Player of the Year Filip Petrusev opted to take a pro contract in his native Serbia after a stellar sophomore season. Key trio Admon Gilder, Killian Tillie, and Ryan Woolridge also departed.

But the Zags are blessed with an abundance of depth and talent that is matched by few teams. Star forward Corey Kispert, who averaged 13.9 points per game and shot 43.8% from three last season, returns for his senior season. Guard Joel Ajayi (10.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.3 steals per game last season) is also back, along with sophomore big man Drew Timme (9.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG last season). Sophomore forward Anton Watson (4.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.2 SPG), who impressed last season before injury ended his season early, is primed for a key role. So is 7-footer Oumar Ballo, who red-shirted last season after starring for surprise silver medalist Mali in the 2019 Under-19 World Cup.

Transfers have factored heavily in Gonzaga’s recent success, and that stands to be the case again. Guard Andrew Nembhard averaged 11.2 points and 5.6 assists at Florida last season and was granted immediate eligibility last week.

That’s a lot of talent as it is, but sustained success means a raised recruiting profile. The rewards from that raised recruiting profile could be what takes Gonzaga over the hump. Freshman guard Jalen Suggs was a consensus top-five prospect and is already receiving rave reviews. If he loves up to his potential, he could be off to the NBA next year with a national championship ring.

There are few discernible weaknesses on this team, but can they handle the pressure? This will be an early test to prove that they can.

Kansas Reloads Yet Again

All Bill Self does is win, and that is the expectation again this year even with some big holes to fill.

Last year’s team finished the season ranked No. 1, led by the inside-outside duo of Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike, who are both gone. Point guard Marcus Garrett (9.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.6 APG) is an elite defender, but he now takes over as the leader on the offensive end as well. Junior guard Ochai Agbaji (10.0 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 2.0 APG) is the team’s lone returning double-digit scorer. Agbaji has a lot of potential as a scorer but needs to find consistency.

Junior big man David McCormack (6.9 PPG, 4.1 RPG) is the man expected to fill Azubuike’s void, while sophomore Christian Braun (5.3 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 44.4 percent from three) is a big threat from outside and is slated for a starting role. Self is not certain about his fifth starter yet, but highly-rated freshman guard Bryce Thompson could be the guy. Thompson’s scoring ability could be vital for the Jayhawks in this game and beyond.

Keys to the Outcome

  1. Gonzaga’s depth: Kansas’ starters will match up reasonably well with Gonzaga’s. But can their reserves match up with Gonzaga’s? Will Garrett thrive or struggle in an expanded offensive role?
  2. Outside shooting: Gonzaga shot 38.6 percent from three last season and should be a dangerous team from deep yet again. Defending the three will be vital for Kansas. If Gonzaga gets hot early, it could spell trouble. Can Kansas shoot well enough to keep up? That was a weakness of last year’s top-ranked team.
  3. Handling the hype: Will Gonzaga come out loose and firing on all cylinders? Can Kansas rattle them early and set the tone?

Odds and Picks: Gonzaga vs Kansas 

Odds from FanDuel as of November 25 (2:00 pm ET).

  • Spread: Gonzaga -5.5 (-106) | Kansas +4.5 (-114)
  • Total: NA
  • Moneyline: Gonzaga -240 | Kansas +198

It will not be a surprise if we see these two teams face off again in March. By then, Kansas will be a far more dangerous and polished team than they may be at the outset.

When it comes to this showdown, however, Gonzaga’s talent and depth are too much to ignore. The addition of Nembhard makes a team that was already slated to be great even better, and that depth will carry the Zags to the win. You can never count out a Bill Self-coached team no matter the talent or experience level, and this one could be close throughout. But Gonzaga should cover, even if it takes some late free throws to do so.

Advice: Take Gonzaga -5.5.