By Alex Burr | @alexburr4
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – When Mark Few, the coach of the Gonzaga Bulldogs, learned that Andrew Nembhart wanted to transfer in from the University of Florida, he knew he had to have a conversation. Few sat down with Jalen Suggs to make sure his star recruit was okay with it. Suggs, who was the highest-ranked recruit in Gonzaga history, could have said no. He could have cared only about his touches, about his shots, or about his draft stock. That’s not what happened when Few convened with Suggs.
“I sat Jalen down and said, ‘Hey, what do you think about this? Are you all right with that?’” Few remembered. “He just got the biggest grin on his face. I’ll remember it the rest of my life. He was like, ‘Coach, are you kidding me? That would be awesome. I’ve found over the years the real players, they don’t fear anybody. They welcome all great players around them.”
Suggs said recently that the winning was the most important thing in his decision to go to Gonzaga, but he did not want to feel like a cog in a machine. “I always talk about it,” Suggs said. “It’s the family piece. I didn’t want to come and be another piece of the puzzle just so they could use me for these six, seven months, get wins, and kind of ship me off to the next part of my journey.
“From the day these guys started recruiting me, they were straight. They were up front. They treated me like I was one of their own honestly. Like I was part of their family from day one.”
Nembhart, a junior, has been impressed with the young star’s competitive nature and his desire to win. “The best part about Jalen is his competitive nature, how he rises to the moment, and it’s all about winning,” Nembhart said. “He shows that in his play and how he interacts with his teammates. He’s really mature for his age, and that’s what made him succeed so much.”
Gonzaga has gone on a run of dominance rarely seen in college basketball, and Suggs has helped lead that charge. The Bulldogs, who come into their Final Four matchup against UCLA Saturday night with a record of 30-0, are looking to complete the first undefeated season since Indiana in 1976. Gonzaga is also the first West Coast Conference team to enter the Final Four undefeated since Bill Russell led San Francisco to a perfect season in 1956. The Bulldogs have won each of their four NCAA Tournament games by at least 16 points and have outscored their opponents on the season by about 19 points a game.
Suggs has done his part to pave the way to the undefeated season so far by averaging 14 points per game to go along with 4.5 assists. He has also shot an impressive 58.8% inside the arc and uses his athletic ability to have some nifty finishes. He was named second-team All-American by many outlets. If Suggs chooses to leave Gonzaga, he is projected to be a top-five pick in the National Basketball Association draft.
The addition of Suggs has lifted an experienced group of Zags to unprecedented heights. Senior Corey Kispert, a consensus finalist for National Player of the Year awards, averaged 18.9 points a game. Drew Timme, a sophomore, was second in scoring in the West Coast Conference, averaging 19 points per game along with seven rebounds. Timme has scored 20 points or more in each NCAA tournament game, while Kispert has been averaging 19.8 points per game.
The inside-outside contrast of Timme, who scores most of his points in the paint and has taken 20 3-point shots all season, and Kispert, who has bombed 192 shots from distance and converted 45% of those shots, has made the team dangerous inside and out. Add Suggs to that equation, and you have an explosive offense averaging 91 points in 40 minutes a game.
Suggs has become friends with Paige Bueckers, the star freshman at the University of Connecticut who helped lead the Huskies to the Final Four of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. Suggs said Bueckers had helped him regain some confidence.
“Last night, she said some things that really helped me,” he said after the Elite Eight. “I’ve been kind of struggling, trying to get my footing in these tournament games. Of course, seeing her go out there and play great like she did and then talking afterwards, she kind of said some words, it kind of got me uplifted. It got me going. Definitely helped tonight. Yeah, it’s a great game last night. She’s the G.O.A.T. for a reason.”
In addition to being a prep basketball star, he was also a high school football star and was the first athlete in Minnesota history to win Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball in the same year. Suggs mentioned in his Elite Eight postgame media availability that he was glad he gave up football for basketball so he could be on a stage like this. Suggs played both sides of the ball, compiling 2,213 yards and passed for 25 touchdowns while running for 978 yards and scoring 12 with his feet, while intercepting nine passes and returning two of those for touchdowns. However, any of the football offers cannot compare to what he is now doing on this stage with Gonzaga.
“Looking back on it, this is the best decision I ever made,” he said. “I miss football every day, but I couldn’t see myself anywhere but here right now.”