After a short turnaround, the Tigers will take on #1 Gonzaga in the second game of the Fort Myers Tip-Off on Friday, 10AM Auburn time, to be exact!
This will be the first time that Auburn and Gonzaga face off on the basketball court so to find out more about the Zags, I reached to our sister site, The Slipper Still Fits, and talked to Peter Woodburn to get the scoop on Gonzaga. My thanks to Peter for taking the time to answer my questions. Peter’s answers are in bold below.
1. I have to start by talking about last season and the way it ended. The Zags were 31-2 and poised to be a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament again. What was your reaction once the NCAA Tournament was canceled?
That was a roller coaster week for me, personally. I live in Seattle and work in a school, and if we go back to the very beginning of COVID in America, it first popped up in Kirkland, a suburb of Seattle. I remember on Monday, the semifinal night of the WCC Tournament, being told the school was closing and everyone would start working from home. I was beyond stoked that I would be able to be home and watch all of the first round games while “working” instead of the standard sitting at work and “watching” all of the first round games.
When it all got cancelled, I was disappointed, for sure—especially for the players. This tweet from fthe Zags’ senior guard (and graduate transfer) Ryan Woolridge summed it up better than anyone could. That said, the state of Washington was already navigating COVID outbreaks publicly before any other state in the nation. Seeing how bad it got, so quickly, I think that cancelling the NCAA Tournament was obviously the right decision.
2. Moving on to this year’s team, Gonzaga has had a lot of great teams over the years but are going into this year as the Preseason #1 team, what are your early thoughts and expectations of this year’s team?
This answer comes with the presumption that college basketball will be able to rattle off something looking like a full season: I am too excited. Ever since the Zags hit the national championship game in 2017, the fanbase is flat out demanding a championship every year. This year, more than any other year, it seems like a realistic dream. The Zags have some experience in Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi, some exciting young talent in Drew Timme and Jalen Suggs, and, athleticism wise, are incredibly versatile. The hype is more than real for this team.
That said, there are a LOT of new pieces in the mix here and a lot of youth to go with it. Mark Few and company have to not only manage through a pandemic but also manage through that. I expect, as talented as the Zags are, to see plenty of frustrating moments early on. By no means are they going to go undefeated this season, but they should be one of the top five teams all year.
3. Auburn and Gonzaga are both bringing in their highest ranked recruits this season and both are point guards: Sharife Cooper for Auburn and Jalen Suggs for the Zags. What does Suggs bring to this Gonzaga team this season?
Jalen Suggs might be that difference maker for the Zags. He is a big and explosive guard with a smooth shot, and he very well could be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft after one year. He is a type of player of which the Zags have never rostered before. He is the Zags first real bonafide high-school star recruit. Zach Collins ended up a five-star, but he took his time to get there after already committing to Gonzaga. Suggs’ recruitment was against the best of the best. On the court, he establishes a scoring presence that makes the Zags one of the more dangerous backcourts in the country. Off the court, he is an example that the Zags can compete with the blue bloods for these high-ranked recruits.
4. Corey Kispert and Drew Timme looked to be the main guys in the frontcourt this year with Filip Petrusev and Killian Tillie off to the pros. Talk about what they bring to the table.
Corey Kispert is the undisputed leader and face of this team, and his evolution over these past three years is the definitive “What it means to be a Zag.” He was a supplemental piece for two years, was told to do more his junior season, and he responded. This year, he is a critical senior voice and steadying hand for the Zags, as well as one of their best three-point shooters. If he is left open, he will score. In terms of production, I’m not sure we will see him score much more than last year, but he will be at the center of every huddle. He is the face and voice of this squad, so get used to seeing him quoted.
One of the reasons the fanbase didn’t blink too much at the early (and semi-surprising) departure of Filip Petrusev to Europe is because of Drew Timme. In the WCC Championship game against Saint Mary’s, he finished with 17 points off 7-of-8 shooting and left Dicky V ranting about diaper dandy’s for the better part of 40 minutes. Timme is an old-school big man—the Gonzaga specialty. He is fundamentally and technically sound in the post, and he will score more from post-ups and positioning than he ever will off of dunks. Mark Few loves loves loves loves running a high-low offense in addition to the ball screens. Having a player like Timme that can finish at the hoop in a variety of styles is necessary for that to succeed.
5. How beneficial is it for Gonzaga to see the West Coast Conference continue to steadily improve after we have heard so much over the years about the Zags benefit simply because they play in a so-called weak conference?
Get ready for a long answer. I have such a complicated relationship with Gonzaga and the WCC. On an emotional level, most Gonzaga fans want them out of there and playing tougher competition as often as possible. On a realistic level, it really isn’t that possible. You essentially have four conferences west of the Rockies: the WCC, MWC, Pac-12, and the WAC. The Zags flirted with the MWC for the better part of a year, ultimately earning some concessions in scheduling changes and what not from the WCC, but in the grand scheme of things, the MWC isn’t that much better than the WCC. The WAC is worse. The Pac-12 just isn’t realistic because Gonzaga University does not have a football team.
That said, I have been told on Twitter too many times to count that the Zags would finish ninth in (insert Power 5 conference here). So we just have to live with the fact that Gonzaga is some sort of weird unicorn school existing in a conference that legitimately makes sense in terms of regionality, school sizes, etc, and that, just because they are stuck in that conference, does not automatically mean they are bad, overrated, would lose to (insert not actually good team here), etc. I think it is fair to hammer the Zags 15 years ago when they would win the WCC and struggle to make it out of the first or second round. But to do that lately? In the past five years, it’s two Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights, and a national championship appearance. But yeah, Zags sure do suck and are overrated.
So, with all of that said, it is great to see some consistently good players coming out of all of the schools. Saint Mary’s, and to a certain extent BYU, are established as pretty good to NCAA Tournament-good each year. This year, Colbey Ross out of Pepperdine is one of the best guards in the nation. Overall, each year, the conference is doing a better job of getting in the recruits and filling out better teams more consistently. The WCC will never be the Big East in terms of quality, but if they can set themselves up as one of the best mid major conferences top to bottom, it’s great for college basketball.
6. Who’s an under the radar guy Auburn fans should be aware of going into Friday’s game?
Anton Watson, 100%. Watson was a four-star product out of Spokane last year (went to Gonzaga Prep), whose shoulder just did not want to stay in place. He really only played uninjured for maybe four games, cranked out a few more, and eventually was shut down. He is an incredibly versatile player who can stretch the floor a bit (not out to the three point line yet), but his biggest impact is on the defensive end. He is a 6’8 forward with the speed of a guard. Mark Few would throw him out as a one-man press to slow down opposing offenses occasionally, and it worked like a charm. I have very real questions about Gonzaga’s ability to defend as a team, but much of that stems from last season when they weren’t very good at it and Watson’s arm was in a sling. He by no means is going to lead the team in points (and if he does, Gonzaga probably wins that game). He is one of those all-around contributors who you appreciate when you take a look a back and look at the overall body of work.
7. Finally, how do you see this game playing out? Do you have a score prediction?
Both the Zags and Auburn have so many unknowns and will be figuring themselves out to a certain extent to start the year. They will both be coming off of games in the previous 24 hours. And for Gonzaga fans, this game will start at 8:00 am on the West Coast (why why why why). All of that will total up to a game that will probably be a bit sloppier than both teams want, and I think ultimately this game will be closer than it probably should. In the end, the Zags offense is just going to be too hard for Auburn to keep up with, and I bet the Zags win this game 80-68.