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With Drew Timme back, can Gonzaga and Mark Few win the big one?

By John Fanta
FOX Sports College Basketball Writer

Over the last six seasons, Gonzaga has amassed a record of 192-18. That’s a .914 winning percentage for Mark Few’s Bulldogs over that span.

The Zags have been about as dominant as any program in college basketball. Few has scheduled a boatload of high-caliber non-conference foes, putting to bed the notion that the program never challenges itself. In the upcoming season, Gonzaga will play Baylor, Kentucky, Texas and Michigan State, while also playing in a challenging field in the Phil Knight Legacy in Portland, Oregon. The Zags have proven time and again that they can handle those matchups, and will likely enter the 2022-23 season ranked No. 1 or No. 2, barring a surprise.

The negative narrative that the program “can’t win the national title” might be outplayed, but it will lurk until the Zags finally break through. Is this the season they do so?

That might seem doubtful given that they’re saying goodbye to No. 2 overall draft pick Chet Holmgren, as well as star guard Andrew Nembhard. But there’s more than enough in place for Gonzaga to climb the mountaintop this season.

Let’s break down what the Bulldogs look like entering the 2022-23 campaign. 

The biggest piece of news in Gonzaga’s offseason came on June 1, when All-American Drew Timme announced in a two-word tweet that he was withdrawing from the NBA Draft and returning to the Bulldogs for his senior season.

It can’t be overstated how big this is for the Zags, not to mention the sport itself. Timme, Gonzaga’s leader and already a Spokane legend, averaged 18.4 points and 6.8 boards on 59% shooting last season.

Sure, there were NIL benefits for Timme to return, but the 6-foot-10 superstar is coming back with the goal of delivering the program its elusive national championship.

Timme isn’t the only one who’s electing to run it back in Spokane this season. His decision followed guard Rasir Bolton and wing Julian Strawther, who both also opted out of the draft. 

At 6-foot-7, Strawther’s versatility and length stand out. As a sophomore, he averaged 11.8 PPG on 50% shooting from the floor. As for Bolton, a fifth-year senior, his experience and ability to create in transition gives the Zags an edge in fast break scenarios. He will aim to carry over his late-season consistency — 13.1 PPG over his last six contests — into the new season. 

Those three high-impact returnees alone would have put the Zags near the top of the rankings, but Few kept working to build his 2022-23 roster. The coaching staff worked the transfer portal well with a pair of key additions, Chattanooga’s Malachi Smith and LSU’s Efton Reid.  

Smith, the reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year, is a dynamic 6-foot-4 guard who led the Mocs to a conference tournament title. Averaging 19.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists as a sophomore, Smith was the main force behind a 27-8 Chattanooga team that reached the NCAA Tournament. The Mocs fell to Illinois in a thrilling one-point first-round game. He was widely considered one of the top available transfers. 

As for Reid, he heads to Spokane looking to be Gonzaga’s next great big. The former five-star recruit was unable to find a rhythm in his lone season in Baton Rouge, averaging 6.3 points and 4.3 boards. He could be a key reserve for the Zags this season and eventually take the torch from Timme.

One of the big underlying keys for Gonzaga is the development of sophomores Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis. Hickman has been groomed to be the Zags’ starting point guard after playing behind Nembhard and Bolton last season. Few has made it clear that he expects Hickman to take a big leap.

As for Sallis, he could be a reserve once again, but the 6-foot-5 combo guard and former five-star recruit should get his fair share of opportunities after averaging just over 13 minutes per game last season. 

Elsewhere in the frontcourt, 6-foot-8 junior forward Anton Watson should compete for a starting spot at the four. It won’t be anything new for the Spokane native, who made 17 starts in the 2020-21 campaign, but gave up that role when Holmgren entered the program.

So, here we go again at Gonzaga. 

The Zags have a national player of the year candidate in Timme, and he’s surrounded by versatility and length. It will be interesting to see how the transfers impact the distribution of minutes, but as has been the case for the Zags for much of the last decade, that’s a good problem for Few and his staff to have.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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