btw. andrew nembhard is the best pg in the country.— ✞ Julian Strawther ✞ (@JulianStrawther) November 24, 2021
If there was any doubt over whether No. 1 Gonzaga truly deserved the top spot in the AP Top 25 following the departure of key players such as Corey Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Joel Ayayi's from last season's national runner-up team, the Bulldogs erased it in emphatic fashion on Tuesday night. Gonzaga thrashed No. 2 UCLA 83-63 on a neutral floor at the Empire Classic in Las Vegas to firmly establish itself as the team to beat in college basketball with more than four months to play until a new national champion is crowned.
The Bulldogs outlasted the Bruins 93-90 in an overtime thriller during last season's Final Four, but there was never even a whiff of drama in the rematch. Gonzaga jumped to a 33-10 lead midway through the first half and never looked back while holding UCLA to just 35% shooting. Andrew Nembhard led Gonzaga with 24 points, while the frontcourt duo of Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren combined for 33 more.
Jamie Jaquez Jr. led UCLA with 19 points, but it took him 22 shots to get there, and his inefficient night was emblematic of the Bruins' overall struggles. After scoring between 75 and 100 points in every game during a 5-0 start, UCLA looked disjointed offensively throughout the night.
The victory improves Gonzaga to 6-0 ahead of its showdown with No. 5 Duke on Friday, while UCLA falls to 5-1 in advance of a game with UCLA on Saturday.
Need more college basketball in your life? Listen below and subscribe to the Eye on College Basketball podcast where Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander break down Gonzaga's dominant win over UCLA in their No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup.
Holmgren shows it all
Entering Tuesday's game, Gonzaga's only victory of note came against No. 8 Texas on Nov. 13, and Holmgren was quiet against the Longhorns, scoring just two points while ceding the spotlight to Timme. But the No. 1 overall prospect from the 2021 recruiting class showed against UCLA that he is plenty capable of flexing against a top-tier foe. Holmgren finished with 15 points, six rebounds, four blocks and one of the best highlights of the season so far.
With UCLA trying to generate some momentum early in the second half, Holmgren blocked a shot by UCLA center Myles Johnson, dribbled the ball up the floor, went behind the back to elude Johnson and then slammed it home. The sequence illustrated why he is regarded as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Sets up Duke showdown
Gonzaga's win sets it up to potentially go 2-0 against top-five opponents this week. Next up for the Bulldogs is a showdown with No. 5 Duke on Friday. The game will pit Holmgren against Duke freshman forward Paolo Banchero, who is perhaps his top competitor for the No. 1 position on 2022 NBA Draft boards. Seeing those two on the court together in a top-five battle will be a scout's dream and offer a different element than was provided by Tuesday's game.
While the Bruins are regarded as a deep and all-round team, they don't have a guaranteed lottery pick in their rotation. Duke has at least one in Banchero. If Tuesday's performance was any indication, however, the Bulldogs should have no problems extending their regular season win streak to 33 games.
Nembhard entered without having reached double figures yet on the season. He changed that with 8:38 still remaining in the first half on Tuesday. The senior guard took control in transition during the first half and showed why these Bulldogs are so dangerous. While Timme and Holmgren get the headlines, the Zags also boast the critical championship ingredient of veteran guard play. Nembhard and Rasir Bolton, who are both seasoned transfers, exert a calming and unselfish presence into the rotation.
Losing Suggs, Ayayi and Kispert from last season's team does change the dynamics of this Gonzaga roster to a team that is more frontcourt-oriented. But Nembhard showed he can step up when needed and be an alpha in the backcourt as freshman guards Nolan Hickman and Hunter Sallis continue to develop.