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Will BYU’s WCC rival Gonzaga make another run at the NCAA title?

The Zags’ roster boasts the No. 1 recruit in the country and the best recruiting class in school history

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The Gonzaga logo is seen on the court at the McCarthey Athletic Center before a college basketball game in Spokane, Wash.

The Gonzaga logo is seen on the court at the McCarthey Athletic Center before a college basketball game between Gonzaga and Northwestern State in Spokane, Wash., Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. Gonzaga is expected to enjoy another outstanding basketball season.

Young Kwak, Associated Press

It’s well-documented that since BYU joined the West Coast Conference a decade ago, it has never won a league championship.

Of course, the main roadblock standing in the way of that elusive championship for the Cougars is perennial national power Gonzaga.

According to Kenpom.com, Gonzaga’s program ranks No. 6 nationally overall since the 1997 season, behind only Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina and Michigan State.

BYU has finished as WCC runners-up numerous times but they’ve never captured a title — regular-season or tournament. 

Last March, the Cougars led Gonzaga, No. 1-ranked, and undefeated, by 14 points just before halftime of the WCC Tournament championship game in Las Vegas before falling 88-78.

A year ago, the Zags started as the preseason No. 1 team, an honor they held throughout the regular season. Gonzaga attempted to become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to record a perfect season, undefeated from start to finish. 

In the Final Four, freshman Jalen Suggs banked home a 40-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer as the Zags knocked off UCLA in an overtime thriller. But in the NCAA championship game, the Zags lost to Baylor, 86-70. The Bears surprisingly dominated from the tipoff.  

“I’m sure there was a sense of disappointment,” Jim Meehan, Gonzaga basketball beat writer for The Spokesman-Review, said of that setback in Indianapolis. “To go undefeated the whole year and be No. 1 the whole year, and the way they did it — they were dominating almost every night out — to come up short in the title game I’m sure was hard to take for their fan base. It’s the second time they’ve gotten there and haven’t finished the job.”

Although coach Mark Few has seen the departure of Corey Kispert, Suggs and Joel Ayayi (three of the team’s top four scorers) as well as longtime assistant Tommy Lloyd (who took the head coaching job at Arizona) since the end of the season, there’s no such thing as rebuilding at Gonzaga. The Zags have, once again, reloaded. 

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Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Drew Timme (2) puts in a shot with Brigham Young Cougars forward Matt Haarms (3) defending as BYU and Gonzaga play in the finals of the West Coast Conference tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Gonzaga won 88-78.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Forward Drew Timme, who averaged 19 points and seven rebounds last season, is returning. 

“If he wasn’t the best interior scorer last year, he’s the best returning interior scorer this season. He’s been working on his shooting and his ability to handle the ball,” Meehan said. “He could have an enormous year. I think he’ll be the favorite for (national) player of the year, at least starting out the season.”

Also returning are Andrew Nembhard, Anton Watson and Julian Strawther. 

If that weren’t enough, Gonzaga signed the nation’s No. 1 recruit, 7-footer Chet Holmgren, the top-rated recruit in program history. 

In Holmgren the Zags “landed a bona fide unicorn. Holmgren is a 7-footer with a 7-foot-1 wingspan who can put the ball on the floor and shoot from outside,” according to The Athletic. “These sorts do not traipse about the planet regularly, let alone land at Gonzaga. Yet he is truly tailor-made for the program, a guy who should fit seamlessly into the versatile, uptempo offense with his ability to stretch the floor as well as see the floor.” 

Holmgren is the crown jewel of the Class of 2021, which is touted as the best in school history. In May, Wasatch Academy’s Nolan Hickman Jr. announced he will be joining Gonzaga this season.

The top-rated player in the state of Utah, Hickman transferred from Eastside Catholic High School in Bellevue, Washington, to Wasatch Academy. He averaged 16 points per game and was named a McDonald’s All-American. 

Hickman originally committed to Kentucky but later decommitted before pledging to the Zags. 

Gonzaga boasts a recruiting class that features Holmgren (No. 1), Hunter Sallis (No. 7), Hickman (No. 29) and Kaden Perry (No. 52).

The Zags also added Iowa State transfer Rasir Bolton. 

Yes, Gonzaga has reloaded once again. That’s the reality for BYU and the rest of the WCC. 

The Zags could be the preseason No. 1 team again this fall and they boast yet another talented, deep roster. Gonzaga is expected, once again, to contend for the national championship. 

“It looks like they’re full stocked again,” Meehan said. “A lot of talent but not swimming in experience. But I would think they’ll start in the top three again and make another run at it.”