Gonzaga’s transfer duo lead the way against Kansas, into another Sweet 16


SALT LAKE CITY — There was nothing particularly standout about April 21, 2023, back in Spokane, Wash. It was a typical spring day — there were too many clouds, not enough flashes of sun, and it was colder than most everyone in eastern Washington would’ve liked having shouldered through another bitter and cold winter.

But something special was percolating within the McCarthey Athletic Center. Some news that eventually would drop would not only fortify the odds that next season’s Gonzaga Bulldogs would avoid a drastic dropoff after a run to the Elite Eight a month prior, but would also make them an even more viable threat to the March Madness field the following spring.

Less than an hour after Wyoming center Graham Ike announced his commitment to Gonzaga as a transfer, Creighton point guard Ryan Nembhard told ESPN he was bound for Spokane himself.

Gonzaga is no stranger to talent acquisition. Head coach Mark Few has proven such wizardry over the years landing such highly sought-after recruiting classes year after year. But the Zags knew that if they were going to be a threat in the 2024 NCAA Tournament, they needed to identify areas of need. It started with a fearless big man who was happy to play with his back to the basket and the legacy of a former Bulldog great, who used to come watch his older brother, Andrew, practice during his own heyday in Spokane.

“I just know the way it was going, it was exactly what we needed this year,” Few said postgame. “I knew those two, those were the two guys we went after. If you can get your top two choices, you’re in pretty good shape.”

Gonzaga, perpetually in good shape come March.

Fast-forward, and of course, The Zag Way is alive and well and thundering on. For the ninth straight NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga is Sweet 16 bound.

And the pair of transfers who decided that Gonzaga was the place to be have become the most welcomed and necessary complements to an existing roster. In Saturday afternoon’s 89-68 thumping of Kansas in the Midwest Region second round, Nembhard was a maestro, finding open players who hit open 3s and Ike in the post. Nembhard found everyone.

He tied a career-high with 12 assists with 10:53 left in the second half —a dime to forward Ben Gregg, who swished a 3 right in front of a rowdy Gonzaga bench. For the third time in his first year at Gonzaga, he’s racked up a dozen assists. Nembhard also broke the program’s single-season record for assists in a year. He’s at 234 and counting.

And he’s done so at a school that has produced prodigal collegiate point guards the likes of John Stockton, Nigel Williams-Goss, Dan Dickau and Josh Perkins. When it was announced in the postgame news conference that Nembhard was the owner of the record, Few and the rest of the Bulldog starting five applauded him.

“It’s an honor, first of all, to get that record,” Nembhard said. “There’s so many great PGs and players who went through the program.”

He would know. His brother, Andrew, chose to end his college career in Spokane after starting at Florida. When Ryan entered the transfer portal and was in search of his last stop in college, only one place really made sense after two years at Creighton. It was the place where Andrew soared with a team that always made noise each spring, where Ryan sat in on practices and watched and got to play with Few’s kids when practices ended.

“Shoot, I’m loving my time here too, man,” he said. “It’s the best school in the country for me, personally.”

Ike’s addition was more conventional. A star at Wyoming who averaged nearly 20 and 10 a year ago, Ike was in search of a place that would allow him to not only thrive with the ball in his left hand, but would change the way he saw and thought about basketball.

“A no-brainer coming here to play with these guys,” Ike said.

In his tussle with Kansas star center Hunter Dickinson, Ike held his own and proved that there was more than one big man who could alter the course of a game. Ike and Dickinson went after one another throughout the afternoon with patented-style jump hooks preceded by physical jostling down low that brought forth a tinge of basketball of old.

As the Bulldogs ballooned their lead to over 20, Ike offered up an Olajuwon-esque shimmy-shake-spin and fadeaway jumper that dropped in over Dickinson. It was the sweetest of his 15 points, to go along with nine rebounds.

“He’s probably one of the most focused and organized guys I’ve been around,” Few said of Ike. “Graham really needed a plan and loved that we have plans for our guys and come through with those plans.”

The plan at Gonzaga isn’t complex: if you want in and are wanted in, you adapt, you learn, you find a way to do your part, and if things come together — like they always seem to do in Spokane — you find yourself happy and dancing.

And sure enough: As the Bulldogs uncapped the bottles of water in the locker room waiting to soak the lockers and floor and basically everything else with H20 when Few walked in Saturday afternoon, Nembhard and Ike were close. They doused their coach. And they danced.

(Photo of Graham Ike and Ryan Nembhard: Isaac Hale / AP)

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