Gonzaga has arrived as a super power. Is this a good thing?
With the expected news coming Monday that SI All-American 2021 Player of the Year Chet Holmgren has committed to the former overachieving little school from the West Coast Conference in the far corner of the contiguous 48, the Zags have done everything but win a national championship. (And they’ve come close on that front, making two of the last four NCAA tournament men's title games.) Their freshman class will have two SI top 20 recruits—more than recruiting juggernaut Kentucky—and three in the top 80—the same number as Kentucky.
They are very likely to start next season ranked No. 1. Which is where undefeated Gonzaga spent the entirety of last season until being routed by Baylor in a surprising national championship mismatch.
Holmgren joins guard Hunter Sallis, ranked the No. 16 prospect in the nation, and center Kaden Perry, ranked No. 76. That’s a high-powered class, and it’s led by a prospect who has arguably the most intriguing skillset ever for a 7-footer. Holmgren has startling ball-handling and shooting ability, will begin to fill out his spindly frame in college, and could be the next step in the evolution of play-anywhere-on-the-court hybrid athletes.
“As unique as they come,” says one NBA scout of Holmgren. “You can’t see him through the lens of a big man. He’s a legit wing with guard skills but the reach and toughness to produce in the paint. Gonzaga will be a great litmus test for him. If he can continue to add more to his game and remain a dominant fixture on both ends, we’re talking about a franchise-altering piece at the NBA level.”
Holmgren will immediately bring more eyeballs to more Gonzaga games next season. And if the projections pan out, he almost certainly is going to be the Zags’ next one-and-done player—which would be just the third in school history but the second in two seasons. If Sallis has a big season he could join Holmgren in being college short-timers.
We’ll see how Mark Few handles the new terrain of annual roster churn, a dynamic that has contributed to boom-or-bust cycles at some blueblood programs. For several reasons, 2021–22 will be a transition point for the most consistent place in college basketball in the last two decades. Can a place that was built on counter-programming the super powers join them, while still retaining the differences that make it special?
Holmgren’s arrival announcement fell on the same day that the guy who previously was the highest-rated recruit in Gonzaga history departed. Jalen Suggs, Holmgren’s high-school teammate at Minnehaha (Minn.) Academy, made it official later Monday that he is off to be a top-five NBA draft pick. (And to join the NFT trend along the way.)
This is the double-edged sword of super-power status. Gonzaga now has access to the kind of bluechip recruits everyone covets, the kind of players who for decades have migrated to the power schools. Talent matters, and Few wants to coach elite talent just as much as Bill Self and John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski want to.
But these also are players Gonzaga used to relish playing against and beating—and the kind of recruits that tend to come and go quickly. In a sport that has increasingly adopted a “get old, stay old” mantra as the path to success, there is risk in trending the other way. Consider: A total of two Rivals five-star recruits played in the ’21 men's Final Four: Suggs and Houston’s Quentin Grimes, who started his career at Kansas in 2018.
Programs that pulled in the top six 2020 freshman recruiting classes, per Rivals, combined to win zero 2021 NCAA tournament games. Kentucky, which had the No. 1 class, endured its worst season in nearly a century. Duke, with the No. 2 class, also failed to make the tourney. Teams with the No. 4 and 5 classes, Auburn and Arizona, both took self-imposed postseason bans—but the Tigers wouldn’t have made the tourney and the Wildcats would have been a bubble team. The only two that made it were North Carolina (with the No. 3 class) and Tennessee (No. 6), and they both were routed in the first round.
Years ago, Duke and Kentucky moved to the forefront of one-and-done recruiting. While it has paid some dividends—the Blue Devils won the 2015 natty and the Wildcats did the same in 2012—it’s hardly a recipe for consistent national title contention. Neither school has made a Final Four since they both were there in ’15, and the process of climbing off the one-and-done hamster wheel is tricky.
If Gonzaga is going to get into the realm of consistently recruiting five-star talent, the challenge will be finding the roster-building sweet spot—mixing the instant-impact freshmen with a veteran nucleus. It worked splendidly last season, with the addition of Suggs elevating a team whose four other starters were an average of 21.5 years old.
Few already has mastered two of the most important recruiting trends of the 21st century: foreign players and transfers. So it stands to reason that he could also thrive with centerpiece freshmen coexisting with veterans. But it’s been 10 years since he had a team that primarily started two freshmen (Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell in 2011–12). This will be a new wrinkle for a wait-your-turn place.
Gonzaga’s entire ethos was built as an anti-entitled program. The ball is shared. The egos are sublimated. There are star players, but mostly there is a star team. Recruiting five-star players who will bend to the program, instead of having the program bend to them, will be the trick.
Suggs fit that brilliantly. Few said during the NCAA tournament run that Suggs was like every other freshman, unloading bags from the team bus and embracing a leadership hierarchy that honors the older players. Goodness knows Suggs played with the hunger of a walk-on, constantly hitting the floor for loose balls.
Holmgren and Sallis may have the same attitude, willing to let junior Drew Timme and senior Andrew Nembhard set the tone (provided both return to school). They may all play well enough together to lift the Zags to that elusive national title next spring.
Ultimately, this upcoming season is a pivot point for Gonzaga. Assistant Tommy Lloyd, the former head-coach-in-waiting, is gone to be the boss at Arizona after more than two decades in Spokane. Senior Corey Kispert, in so many ways the Zag of all Zags, has graduated. In comes the most highly touted recruiting class in school history.
A different Gonzaga is emerging from the undefeated season that crashed and burned just short of winning it all. Different can be good, perhaps even better, but there also can be a downside to the recruiting terrain the Zags are entering. The metronomic consistency of the Mark Few Era will be even more impressive if it continues through this transition phase.
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