The first 62 seconds of Thursday’s Thanksgiving day showdown between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 6 Kansas featured 10 points, two turnovers, a highlight-reel dunk and a technical foul, just to name a few of the highlights from the frenetic beginning. The torrent pace continued for much of the game as the top-ranked Bulldogs outlasted the Jayhawks 102-90 in the marquee game of college basketball’s opening weekend.
Concern arose before the game after a member of the Gonzaga traveling party tested positive for COVID-19. But no players tested positive and the game was allowed to be played. With a potential game between No. 2 Baylor and No. 3 Villanova already wiped off the weekend slate by virus-related issues, the fact that Gonzaga-Kansas got started and made it to the finish line was a welcome relief.
And the game did not disappoint as two of the sport’s premier programs traded blows and showed glimpses of why they are again among the favorites to win the national title. Here are the takeaways from the thrilling battle between the teams that finished last season ranked No. 1 (Kansas) and No. 2 (Gonzaga).
What about defense?
Kansas finished last season with the second-most efficient defense in the country, according to KenPom, as the Jayhawks allowed only 60.7 points per game during a 28-3 season. But Gonzaga scored 54 in the first half alone as the Bulldogs hit 68% of their shots in the opening frame and racked up 30 points in the paint.
Though reigning Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Garrett is back as the defense’s anchor, the Jayhawks desperately missed the imposing interior presence of graduated center Udoka Azubuike. Gonzaga center Drew Timme led all scorers with 25 points as he hit 11-of-15 shots against a series of overmatched defenders.
The most points Kansas allowed in a game last season was 84, and that was in an overtime victory over a Dayton team that finished No. 3 nationally. Opponents reached 70 points just four times against Kansas last season. In fact, Gonzaga’s 102 points were the most scored against Kansas in a non-overtime game during Bill Self’s 18 seasons as the Jayhawks’ coach.
Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs was ranked the No. 11 player in the 2020 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports Composite. The highest-rated prospect in Gonzaga history looked every bit the part against Kansas. Suggs dunked an alley-pop pass from Anton Watson over reigning Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Garrett just 40 seconds into the game. He received a technical foul for his reaction to the highlight-reel play, but that was about the only mistake the 6-foot-5 combo guard made in his debut.
Suggs finished with 24 points and eight assists in just 24 minutes.
Kansas’ star freshman Bryce Thompson also turned in a nice debut outing. The No. 21 ranked player from the 2020 class had a pair of jumpers that first appeared to be 3-pointers ruled 2-pointers. Otherwise, his 12-point outing would have been a bit more productive. Still, Thompson looked plenty capable of helping the Jayhawks’ offense this season as the program replaces top scorers Azubuike and Devon Dotson from last year’s team.
Cleared to contribute
The Bulldogs received the news this week that Florida transfer guard Andrew Nembhard would be eligible immediately. The former five-star prospect from the Class of 2018 came off the bench but finished with 11 points and three assists in 32 minutes. Ultimately, Kansas outscored Gonzaga 24-13 in bench points, which raises concerns about the Bulldogs’ depth. Nembhard and Southern Illinois transfer Aaron Cook were the only Gonzaga players to see more than five minutes of action off the bench.
But all in all, it was a nearly perfect debut for a team entering the season with the No. 1 ranking for the first time in program history.