No. 1 Gonzaga Throws Down the Gauntlet in Eye-Raising Opener vs. No. 6 Kansas

The nation's top-ranked team shook off all notions of offensive rust to pass its first big test of 2020–21 with flying colors.
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No. 1 Gonzaga hung 102 points on No. 6 Kansas in a Thanksgiving afternoon clash in Fort Myers, opening its season with an unprecedented offensive performance against a Bill Self-coached Jayhawks team.

The Bulldogs' 102–90 win represented the most points scored by an opponent in a non-overtime game in the Self era in Lawrence (H/T the Kansas City Star's Jesse Newell), and was the first time anyone hit the century mark against Kansas in four years.

Gonzaga entered 2020–21 firmly entrenched in the debate over who should be the preseason national title favorite, though no one would have blamed Mark Few's team if it didn't look like a well-oiled offensive juggernaut right out of the gate. But the Zags blitzed Kansas from the jump on Thursday, making 10 of their first 14 shots en route to a 54-point first half. Thirty-four of those points came from senior Corey Kispert and sophomore Drew Timme, who recorded 17 apiece after having their way with the Jayhawks' defense over the first 20 minutes. 

Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs dribbles vs Kansas

Freshman Jalen Suggs had an electric debut for Gonzaga.

If the first half belonged to Kispert and Timme, the second belonged to freshman Jalen Suggs. The highest-ranked recruit in Gonzaga history opened his college career with a dazzling effort, finishing with 24 points, eight assists, four rebounds and just one turnover. 

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Zags' offensive outing was the fact they made just six three-pointers on the day. In an era when many successful college programs have embraced a perimeter-based offense, Gonzaga remains a throwback preferring to work inside-out, having ranked 303rd nationally last season in three-point rate.

And now, in 2020–21, Few might have built the ideal roster to do just that. Kispert, Timme and Suggs all put on a show vs. Kansas, and the Zags' real secret weapon might be the many ways they can beat you. There's talented junior guard Joel Ayayi, who chipped in 15 points and nine rebounds. There's Florida point guard transfer Andrew Nembhard, who brought two years' of SEC starting experience to Spokane, was a surprising late addition to this year's team and came off the bench against Kansas to score 11. And there's big men Anton Watson and Oumar Ballo, who didn't contribute much by way of scoring on Thursday but will provide needed minutes in the interior.

Kansas, to its credit, certainly didn't roll over and die in this one. The Jayhawks fought back, climbing out of a 14-point first-half hole to keep the game tight for much of the second half until a late Bulldogs surge finally proved too overwhelming. Despite entering the season ranked sixth, Self's program is adjusting to losing two of the nation's top players (Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike), and being asked to slow down Gonzaga in its opener was about as rude a welcome to the season as one could've asked for.

While Kansas's interior defensive effort left a lot to be desired, it can point to enough bright spots offensively. Freshman Bryce Thompson, a five-star recruit, looked solid in his role, scoring 12 on six shots. Senior Marcus Garrett missed just two shots while leading the Jayhawks with 22 points, and junior Ochai Agbaji was arguably the most impressive player in blue, posting a line of 17 points, four assists, two steals and no turnovers. If there was any reason for pessimism around Gonzaga based on this one-game sample, it was that its own defensive performance wasn't anything to write home about—and that end of the floor has been the main concern around the championship aspirations of the last few Bulldogs teams.

If it wasn't clear already though, Thursday cemented the fact that this Kansas team has a lot of work to do if it wants to be like the one that was the favorite to win the whole thing before March's NCAA tournament was canceled. Consider this: Owners of the nation's No. 2 adjusted KenPom defense last season, the Jayhawks gave up 70 or more points just four times in 31 games in 2019–20. In Fort Myers on Thursday, Gonzaga hit the 70-point mark with 12:12 to go. 

Kansas won't see many—if any—other teams with the pure offensive talent of the Zags this year, but letting any opponent shoot 77.3% on twos isn't going to cut it most of the time. And given the Jayhawks' frontcourt limitations—starting 6' 10" center David McCormack is the lone rotation player over 6' 8"—it wouldn't be a surprise to see Self embrace more of a small-ball lineup going forward like he did at times on Thursday.

In the meantime, these teams will be right back at it Friday, with Gonzaga playing Auburn and Kansas facing Saint Joseph's, both still at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Fla. Both should comfortably handle those opponents, but tougher times await—on Tuesday, Kansas meets Kentucky in the annual Champions Classic, while the Zags' remaining nonconference slate, barring cancellations, is set to include No. 2 Baylor, No. 5 Iowa and No. 15 West Virginia.