INDIANAPOLIS – Joel Ayayi, a junior guard from Bordeaux, France, with a sly grin and a silky sweater, thinks he’s terrible for the Gonzaga men’s basketball team.
In a powerhouse team in which everyone knows their role – Corey Kispert is the Deadeye shooter, Jalen Suggs the whirling dervish and Drew Timme the magician with the mustache in the mail – Ayayi rides as a happy joke.
He could knock on a hotel door and run down the hall. He could pat a teammate on the right shoulder if he’s on his left or jump out from behind a door to scare someone. He’s tearing his head to find out what’s next.
“I don’t take ideas,” Ayayi told reporters in a video conference last week.
If the antics seem childish, his teammates tolerate Ayayi because his pranks are the only problems they have endured this season. Surely there have been few on the basketball court this season as they’ve been going through their schedule.
On Sunday it was no different when the Zags with the number 1 drove past the Hinkle Fieldhouse at Creighton with the number 5 (83-65) to secure a berth in the last sixteen against southern California on Tuesday evening. Number 6 in the West region, the Trojans beat seventh-seed Oregon (82-68) in their final game on Sunday.
The most dazzling game of the day – and perhaps the tournament – was UCLA’s 88-78 surprise against Alabama, finishing second in overtime. The Crimson Tide bounced back from an 11-point half-time deficit, sending the game into overtime on Alex Reese’s 26-foot-feet, with four tenths of a second remaining in regulation.
But the Bruins in eleventh place, who had prevailed in a play-in game after a 14-point deficit against Michigan State in overtime, dominated overtime, even without their strong Johnny Juzang, who 2 minutes and 26 seconds Had fouled in regulation before the end. Of Alabama’s many regrets, only 11 out of 25 free throws are made.
The Bruins play against Michigan with the highest seed, benefiting from a 50-point show in the color to crush the fourth-occupied state of Florida (76-58).
Gonzaga (29-0), who has been trying to become the first undefeated men’s national basketball champion since Indiana in 1976, only had a lead of less than 10 points this season. The three tournament victories were achieved with 43, 16 and 18 points.
“We have nothing to do with the undefeated at all,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, adding, “The further you get with it, the more pressure comes from many places.” I think the biggest place it comes from is you don’t want it to end. I bet if you ask them they wish they could play 25 more games together. So you just don’t want it to end. “
Gonzaga played like this on Sunday.
On an afternoon when Kispert was unusually calm and only tried a 3-pointer in the first 30 minutes and Suggs made six turnovers, the less announced starter Timme joined in, the top scorer with 22 points up front and in the middle.
Point guard Andrew Nembhard scored 17 points and had 8 assists. Ayayi contributed 13 points and 8 rebounds. Their six 3-pointers together were a response to Creighton’s venture to shoot. And it was also a platform to showcase the skills of Nembhard, a transfer that may have been overlooked but the first freshman to Florida since Bradley Beal was to start every game.
Few of them repeatedly put Nembhard in pick-and-rolls with Timme and sat back and watched as he made one good decision after another as the ball soon sped across the field. Of Gonzaga’s 34 baskets, 23 came via a template.
“If you make a mistake, you’ll pay for it with your passport and give your teammates an easy opportunity,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott last week, calling the Zags one of the best passing teams he has ever seen. “It is one thing to be selfless; It’s another thing to be selfless and have the ability to deliver the pass on time and in the right place. “
McDermott is no stranger to Gonzaga. This was the third time they’d met in the last four seasons. Creighton led each of the previous games at halftime by 7 points, except that Gonzaga put up 54 and 62 points in the second half to run away with wins.
There was no such drama on Sunday.
No matter what problem Gonzaga may face, the answer is always more offensive.
After Marcus Zegarowski sunk a 3-pointer in the middle of the first half to pull Creighton within 27-25, the Bluejays simply couldn’t keep up. The Bulldogs lead was a comfortable 43-33 at halftime and only got bigger as the ball flew across the pitch with reckless efficiency.
“That was our identity all season,” said Nembhard. “We play best when we move the ball because we have so many parts and so much versatility. It’s like playing in the park with some people who click. “
The question for the next eight days when the tournament ends is who will challenge Gonzaga.
Teams in his quarter of the bracket have been crippled by the coronavirus. Virginia Commonwealth was knocked out of the tournament by positive cases and could not play its game in the first round against Oregon. Kansas with the third seed and Virginia with the fourth seed were compromised by them in the run-up to the first round and were eliminated early (although both had lost to Gonzaga earlier in the season).
Creighton also had its own glitches this month when McDermott was suspended for telling his players “everyone must stay on the plantation” after losing to Xavier, a metaphor that conjured up images of players as slaves. McDermott, who was suspended after widespread outrage – including some from former Creighton players – was reinstated after missing a game and apologizing.
Creighton advanced to the Big East tournament championship but was directed by Georgetown. The Bluejays were almost annoyed with the number 12 UC Santa Barbara in the first round of the NCAA tournament before running past Ohio in the second round.
The Zags undoing were often defensive-length teams and those who force the Zags to defend. Texas Tech used this formula to take out the Zags in the West Region finals in 2019, and the state of Florida pissed them off in 2018. Southern California has the height to upset Gonzaga on one end, and Oregon has the quickness to dribble to do other end. But neither are they sown to reach that point for any reason.
However, few pointed out all of the problems in this tournament.
“I hope people realize how hard it is. It’s literally the hardest thing we do in our sport to get ahead in this tournament, ”said Few, a coach whose team makes it easy.
Alan Blinder contributed to the coverage.