What specifically does BYU need to do to compete with Drew Timme, No. 8 Gonzaga?
The mustachioed, fun-loving 6-foot-10 senior could have left early for the NBA years ago, but he keeps coming back
Over the years, Gonzaga has produced a cavalcade of All-America selections and first-round NBA draft picks that have matriculated through its program, wreaking havoc on opponents.
“These Zags, man. It’s kind of like there’s a price of admission to even compete in the game. And you don’t get a chance to compete in the game if you don’t guard in transition. You don’t even get a chance to compete.” — BYU coach Mark Pope
Perhaps nobody has been more vexing for West Coast Conference teams — and teams in general — than Drew Timme, who, it seems, has been wearing a Zags uniform since the turn of the century and is, once again, a National Player of the Year candidate.
He might be the face of college basketball.
The mustachioed, fun-loving 6-foot-10 senior from Richardson, Texas, with nifty footwork and a thousand dynamic moves in the paint, could have left early for the NBA years ago, but he keeps coming back, trying to help the program win its first national championship.
Once again, Timme leads No. 8 Gonzaga into the Marriott Center for a showdown with BYU Thursday (7:30 p.m. MST, ESPN).
Last October, BYU coach Mark Pope was asked about Timme’s return. Like a lot of coaches around the country, he had mixed feelings.
“He’s a really special talent. He’s done a lot. I’m not happy he’s coming back but I’m so happy he’s coming back. As a person that loves college basketball and what this game is, it’s so good for the game,” he said. “I can’t see inside the Gonzaga locker room but he’s been such a great moldable personality and flexible leader for that team. He’s clearly been great for that team and for college basketball.
“He also is teaching us all about the game. You see unique players like that and you can’t help but think about the game in new ways,” Pope continued. “He’s got a really unique skill set for a top player in the country. As a coach, I’m grateful for him because he makes us think about the game differently. You don’t get that all of the time. He’s had a massive impact on college basketball and I’m excited that his tenure is continuing.”
This season, Timme is doing what he typically does — scoring points, grabbing rebounds and finding the open man. He’s averaging 21.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.
When asked about Timme this week, Pope joked about Timme’s seemingly endless eligibility.
“Drew Timme, how many years does he have left? Go be a pro already,” he said. “He’s been the face of that program for a decade, it seems like. He’s just one of the best players in the country. And he does it his own way. He does it in a way that nobody has successfully figured out.
“Over the last several years, again the conversation has been ‘What do you do with him?’ Every different look you give him, he just has a really special answer for. He’s a tough competitor. He’s everything you want in a leader. In that sense, they’re very similar (to last year’s Gonzaga team).
“They’re not as long as they were last year, for sure but they’re really explosive,” the BYU coach continued. “They’re shooting the ball at an explosive clip. They’ve got some young guys that have grown up in the program that are becoming stars. Some different bodies but the same problems.”
One difference between this year’s Gonzaga’s team — which has lost three games this season, to No. 10 Texas, No. 3 Purdue and Baylor — and last year’s is, 7-1, 190-pound unicorn Chet Holmgren is no longer on the roster. He was the No. 2 overall pick of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2022 draft.
But, as usual, the Zags are loaded with talent in addition to Timme — Julian Strawther (13.9 points, 7.3 rebounds), Rasir Bolton (11.3 ppg) and Anton Watson (9.5 points, 5.1 rebounds).
Yes, Holmgren is gone but the Zags have other players that pose big challenges.
“This Watson is a terrific talent. He’s a big-time player and he’s playing at an elite level. He’s just a different challenge,” Pope said. “He’s more physical and he’s an elite level rebounder and he’s become more aggressive in transition and he’s making plays off the bounce. … He’s also a really formidable partner. It’s just a different look. But they’re both really good.”
As a team, Gonzaga is No. 5 nationally in scoring, averaging 85.9 points per game and No. 5 in effective field goal percentage, at 57.9%.
For BYU, the biggest concerns are about transition defense and rebounding when facing this team.
“These Zags, man. It’s kind of like there’s a price of admission to even compete in the game. And you don’t get a chance to compete in the game if you don’t guard in transition. You don’t even get a chance to compete,” Pope said. “If you can’t compete with them on the glass, you don’t get a chance to compete.
“If you think about this team, if you don’t guard them in transition, and if you don’t guard them on the glass, what are you even doing? Those are massive keys and they always have been. They’re hallmarks of coach (Mark) Few’s program over the past two decades.
“They’re real reasons why that team is so special. And they do a million other things that are nearly impossible to stop. But those are the entry-way to have a chance to even compete in the game.”
Pope added that the way Gonzaga rebounds has taught him something about rebounding and he has coined a new phrase now used in the program.
“I had never used the term of a ‘second hit.’ They’re magic. It’s Timme and Watson. They’re unbelievable. You always have a collision when you’re working on the glass. We started with this terminology last year because they were just drilling us on the glass. This idea of a second hit,” Pope said. “A lot of times what happens is, you’ll watch film and Timme will get into you, you’ll have a collision on the glass and as you go prepare to raise up in the air, he gives you a second hit and he clears out space and the ball lands in his lap.
“We’ve put that into our verbiage of how we talk about things — second hit. We have to be great on the second hit. We have to be great with the second hit. We have to compete on the ground longer and in the air shorter and later to have a chance to compete with these guys.”
Pope added that Gonzaga’s physical style of play is underrated.
“What you don’t see on TV is their physicality. It’s incredible. Their strength and physicality,” he said. “For some reason, it doesn’t translate when you watch it on TV. You experience it when you feel it. That’s all keys for us in terms of trying to compete with them on the glass.”
Overall, BYU has been solid defensively in WCC play, including limiting San Diego to just 48 points in the Cougars’ 20-point road victory last Saturday.
Will that help BYU against Gonzaga?
“We’re getting better, especially on the defensive end. We’ve made some real strides,” Pope said. “Analytically, we’re in the top 30 on the defensive side. That hasn’t come by accident. We have a lot of work to be done on the other side of the ball. I’m super proud of it.”
Pope loves how much his team is committed to playing defense, even when the offense isn’t going well.
Cougars on the air
No. 8 Gonzaga (14-3, 3-0)
at BYU (13-6, 3-1)
Thursday, 7:30 p.m. MST
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM
“One of the nice things for our team, that’s not the case always, is that we’ve had some successful stretches offensively and some stretches where we’re almost dysfunctional offensively,” he said. “Usually, that sucks away your defensive energy. These guys have refused to let that happen. It’s a credit to them.
“They’re trying to guard every single possession, regardless of what the outcome is on the other side of the ball. … They’ve been really committed to selling out on the defensive end. If we keep doing that, we’re going to keep doing better there.”
But will that be enough to knock off Timme and the Zags?