INDIANAPOLIS — Joel Ayayi, a junior guard from Bordeaux, France, with a sly grin and a silky jumper, fancies himself as the enfant horrible of the Gonzaga males’s basketball crew.
On a powerhouse squad the place everybody is aware of his function — Corey Kispert is the deadeye shooter, Jalen Suggs the whirling dervish and Drew Timme the mustachioed wizard in the publish — Ayayi rides alongside as the merry prankster.
He would possibly knock on a lodge door and bolt down the hallway. He would possibly faucet a teammate on the proper shoulder when he’s standing to his left, or soar out from behind a door to startle somebody. He’s racking his brain to determine what’s subsequent.
“I’m taking any ideas,” Ayayi advised reporters on a video convention name final week.
If the antics appear infantile, his teammates tolerate Ayayi as a result of his pranks are about the solely bothers they’ve endured this season. Certainly, there have been few on the basketball courtroom this season the manner they’ve waltzed by means of their schedule.
It was no totally different on Sunday, when the No. 1-seeded Zags cruised previous No. 5-seeded Creighton, 83-65, at Hinkle Fieldhouse to earn a berth in the spherical of 8 towards the winner of a Sunday night time sport between sixth-seeded Southern California and seventh-seeded Oregon. Gonzaga and the winner of that sport will meet in the ultimate of the West Region on Tuesday night time at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Gonzaga (29-0), which is attempting to develop into the first unbeaten males’s basketball nationwide champion since Indiana in 1976, has had just one margin of victory smaller than 10 factors this season. Its three match victories have come by 43, 16 and 18 factors.
“We’re not hung up on the undefeated thing at all,” Gonzaga Coach Mark Few mentioned, including: “As you get farther and farther along with this, the pressure comes from a lot of places. I think the biggest place it comes from is you don’t want it to end. I bet if you asked them, they wish they could play 25 more games together. So you just don’t want it to end.”
Gonzaga performed that manner on Sunday.
On a day when Kispert was unusually quiet, making an attempt just one 3-pointer in the first half-hour, and Suggs dedicated six turnovers, the less-heralded starters joined Timme, the game-high scorer with 22 factors, entrance and heart.
Point guard Andrew Nembhard scored 17 factors and had 8 assists, and Ayayi contributed 13 factors and 8 rebounds. Their six 3-pointers mixed had been a retort to Creighton’s daring them to shoot. And it was additionally a platform to showcase the expertise of Nembhard, a switch who is perhaps neglected however was the first freshman at Florida since Bradley Beal to begin each sport.
Few repeatedly put Nembhard in pick-and-rolls with Timme, and sat again and watched him make one good resolution after one other, as the ball quickly went whizzing round the courtroom. Of Gonzaga’s 34 baskets, 23 got here through an help.
“If you make a mistake, they’re going to make you pay for it with the pass and create any easy opportunity for the teammates,” Creighton Coach Greg McDermott mentioned final week, calling the Zags one of the greatest passing groups he has seen. “It’s one thing to be unselfish; it’s another thing to be unselfish and have the ability to deliver the pass on time and in the right spot.”
McDermott isn’t any stranger to Gonzaga. This was the third time in the final 4 seasons they met. Creighton led every of the earlier video games by 7 at halftime, solely to have Gonzaga put up 54 and 62 factors in the second half to run away with victories.
There was no such drama on Sunday.
No matter the downside Gonzaga would possibly confront, the answer is all the time extra offense.
After Marcus Zegarowski sank a 3-pointer halfway by means of the first half to attract Creighton inside 27-25, the Bluejays simply couldn’t preserve tempo. The Bulldogs’ lead was a snug 43-33 at halftime and received solely bigger as the ball zipped round the courtroom with ruthless effectivity.
“That’s been our identity all season,” Nembhard mentioned. “We play the best when we’re moving the ball because we have so many pieces and so much versatility. It’s just like playing in the park with a bunch of guys that click.”
The question over the subsequent eight days, when the match concludes, is who will problem Gonzaga?
Teams in its quarter of the bracket have been crippled by the coronavirus. Virginia Commonwealth was knocked out of the match by constructive circumstances and couldn’t play its first-round sport towards Oregon. Third-seeded Kansas and fourth-seeded Virginia had been compromised by them main as much as the first spherical and bowed out early (although each had lost to Gonzaga early in the season).
Creighton additionally had its personal disruptions this month when McDermott was suspended for telling his gamers after a loss to Xavier that (*8*) a metaphor that conjured photographs of gamers as slaves. McDermott, who was suspended solely after widespread outrage — together with some from former Creighton gamers — was reinstated after lacking one sport and apologizing.
Creighton superior to the Big East match championship however was routed by Georgetown. The Bluejays had been practically upset by No. 12-seed U.C. Santa Barbara in the first spherical of the N.C.A.A. match earlier than racing previous Ohio in the second spherical.
The Zags’ undoing has usually been groups with size defensively and ones that power the Zags to defend. Texas Tech used that components to knock off the Zags in the West Regional ultimate in 2019, and Florida State upset them in 2018. Southern California has the top to hassle Gonzaga at one finish and Oregon has the quickness off the dribble to take action at the different finish. But they’re additionally not seeded to achieve this level for a cause.
Few, although, pointed to all the upsets on this match.
“I hope people realize just how hard it is; it’s literally the hardest thing we do in our sport is advancing in this tournament,” mentioned Few, a coach whose crew is making it look simple.