Tone-Setting Drew Timme Puts Gonzaga Two Wins From History

Faced up with hyped USC 7-footer Evan Mobley, Timme continued his tourney domination as the Zags rolled to the men's Final Four.
Author:
Publish date:

INDIANAPOLIS — If you’re in a rush here and want to know how Gonzaga made the men's Final Four, which you probably expected them to make, just know that Drew Timme ran out of new celebrations midway through it.

The Bulldogs took a 20-point lead shortly into the second half, curling their way through a baseline out of bounds play that started with Corey Kispert rolling to the corner, but instead sent the ball to Jalen Suggs, who faked multiple Trojans with a brief hesitation and found Timme diving into the paint for a two-handed dunk.

The next part has become as predictable as Gonzaga’s remarkable dominance, which has gone on mostly unfettered for months, with an 85–66 win over USC now in the rearview. Timme’s index fingers traced the outline of his ubiquitous, furry mustache, wiping beneath both nostrils for emphasis (not cleanliness) and finishing with a skyward point. He’d already done this once, at the outset of the game, the Bulldogs already hurtling toward the finish line. He followed subsequent first-half buckets with a shrug and a flex of his right bicep.

When the Bulldogs face UCLA on Saturday, they’ll be favored. Cross that one off, and they’ll play the winner of Baylor and Houston, in which they’ll also be favored. It should surprise absolutely no one that Gonzaga is still here in Indianapolis defending its top overall seed. Yet, somehow, it seemed Timme never thought to expand his repertoire of extra celebrations, even as he finished with 23 points, five rebounds and four assists.

Gonzaga's Drew Timme shoots vs. USC's Evan Mobley

“Drew wants to go toe-to-toe with the best of the best,” Corey Kispert told reporters earlier in the week. “All of the facial hair and giggling and laughing and celebrations aside, Drew’s a dog.” At this point, some light rehearsal may be a good use of Timme’s hotel downtime leading into Saturday. “[Drew] gets us going,” Jalen Suggs said postgame. ”He gets us all fired up.” Sitting for his press conference, Suggs punctuated his point with a brief pause and a chuckle, to mimic Timme’s signature celebration.

It may have been that Timme’s much-diagnosed matchup with USC’s Evan Mobley became a personal affront to the Tao of the Stache, which has evolved from light gimmick to a maybe-sort-of-convincing manifestation of his mojo. Through four tournament games, Timme has dominated all comers with his soft touch, quiet footwork and understanding of his place at the center of a historically great offense.

Gonzaga revolves around Timme, but not always through him. The Zags can flash him to the middle, let Jalen Suggs work downhill, or run Kispert through actions away from the ball. If they feel like it, they can do some or all of those things at the same time. Joel Ayayi and Andrew Nembhard are there to whip the ball around and improvise. As he’s built what is indisputably the premier college program on the West Coast, Mark Few has always played to his personnel. “This team plays better without sets,” Few told reporters on Sunday. “Our flow is probably the best thing we do.” The Bulldogs’ small-ball outfit is his best team, and his best job yet.

The way the Zags pass the ball is part innate, partially bespoke. In early-season practices, Few and his staff saw the the way his guys were sharing it. “It’s fun,” Kispert said on Sunday, “because we just do what we’re best at all day long.” The staff installed drills and warmups to cultivate that piece of the group’s identity. “They really, really bought into that,” Few said.

Through four NCAA tournament games, Gonzaga has assisted on 83 of 129 made field goals, while turning the ball over just 46 times. It's won all four games by at least 15 points. Few made clear that his team would, perhaps refreshingly, allow itself to be content, at least for now. “This is something that needs to be celebrated, and we need to take the time to enjoy the heck out of it,” he said.

Early ball pressure started with the 6' 10" Timme nimbly switching onto 6' 2" Tahj Eaddy on the first play of the game, then stripping him, going the length of the court and drawing an important foul on Mobley. (“He really kind of enjoys those moments,” Few says). Gonzaga took advantage of nearly every mistake and ran out to a 17–4 lead. Searching for answers, Andy Enfield pivoted away from the mad-scientist zone defense that helped his Trojans get this far into the tourney.

By the time they went back to it, it hardly mattered. “When Timme is playing as well as he did tonight in the lane, and their shooters and their ball handling, their speed is very hard [to handle],” Enfield said. The Bulldogs played their way. They never trailed. “We were moving in unison,” Suggs said.

Bar none, the most dramatic moment of the night came five minutes into the game, when official Bert Smith collapsed directly in front of Gonzaga’s bench and hit the floor hard. He was immediately tended to by medical staff, was awake as he was wheeled off the court and was said to be alert and stable shortly afterward. That news came as a major relief to both teams and all observers.

But in that brief, frightening silence, as Smith received care, you could hear Bulldogs assistant Tommy Lloyd—who had been first to Smith’s side—speaking up in the Gonzaga huddle. He concluded his spiel with a loud message to his players. “Trust each other, and get a great shot.” All season, they’ve made it look as simple as it sounds.

The undefeated, top-seeded Zags are two wins away from the big thing they’ve convinced everyone they can do. Kispert, Gonzaga’s lone senior, expressed a broader view on the matter over the weekend. “Even though there is this big buildup to these big games coming up,” he said, “we’re not on planes, we’re not back in Spokane with everyone telling us how great we’ve been. It just feels like business as usual. It makes it easy to focus on the present and be in the moment.”

Whichever way this unusual season ends, there’s a week left, tops. And in the world outside this strange, condensed, basketball bubble, the expectations are certainly weightier than Few, or Kispert, or any of them let on. You just wonder if anyone’s told them yet.

SI’s tournament newsletter analyzes everything you need to know about the Big Dance: what just happened and what’s happening next. Sign up for Morning Madness here.