Sports

Gonzaga’s Drew Timme is a college basketball throwback

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SAN FRANCISCO — He answers a question about the upcoming opponent not by saying, “They’re a really good team,” but by saying, “They’re a really good freaking team” — because he knows the value of tossing in a good “freaking” here and there.

He answered a question about his coach’s drunk-driving episode from September with a thick paragraph about the importance of owning up to wrongdoing, and says, “He was upfront and honest about it and s— happens, so, yeah.”

He answers a question about superstitions by saying, “I would say the only thing is to play your a– off, so if that’s a superstition, then there’s one for you.”

Listeners laugh partly because the speaker is something sort of odd: He’s familiar.

Gonzaga has been the best program in college basketball except for that one little thing

Blunt, real and recognizable, Gonzaga’s Drew Timme might just have a distinction among the thousands of college basketball players. If pollsters bothered to poll Americans about whom they can recognize in a sport whose stars stop by not even for cups of coffee but for gulps, he might win the survey even if he might not grab a majority.

For three seasons he has been around Gonzaga, thus around the top and around the TV cameras, his visibility steep enough that even his mustache became a sensation and then, like most sensations, a cliche. Hell, he’s already 21, even. Fellow citizens might recognize him even if they don’t scrutinize their brackets enough to know about the road fork he faced Saturday night.

Way back then five days ago, at halftime against Memphis, he might have exited the college game in the kind of second-round rudeness that leaves teams forgotten. As savants know by now, he corralled his teammates at halftime against Memphis and gave that little talk about playing like it’s their last game ever, and Gonzaga breathed on through from a 12-point deficit to an 82-78 finish in one of the games of the tournament thus far.

That meant he could make it here to the Stephen Curry mansion by the San Francisco Bay so the No. 1 Bulldogs could play Arkansas on Thursday and maybe then Duke or Texas Tech on Saturday, and he could field a question from the Wall Street Journal about his NIL deal with a casino.

He could grind and field it adeptly.

“Well, every time I walk into the gym, I see a big Northern Quest logo, so I didn’t think too much of it, honestly,” his eyes on the whole picture like the savvy youth of today. “No, they’re a great partner I have. They really are good with the community and everything, and they’re really tied into a lot of things in Spokane, so I just really like that about them, and I think they have a lot more than just gambling. So that’s why I really liked them.”

Up the coast in Portland, he had just forged the kind of second half that absolutely commanded the eye. He scored 21 points after halftime and scored them in various ways — turnaround, drive, three-point shot — that mark a big man of the era (and owe so very much to Magic Johnson). He credited a teammate who deserves crediting every bit as much as Timme if not more, point guard Andrew Nembhard: “This dude didn’t come out of the game one time and he’s getting picked up 94 feet. The amount of shape you have to be in to do that, control a game and ice the game with two free throws, it’s crazy. A lot of emotions from that game for sure.”

Gonzaga didn’t play in the tournament in Timme’s first year because the country didn’t have one at the outset of the pandemic. He did play in the tournament his second year, on the Gonzaga team that went famously to 31-0 before missing Baylor in the final, but he did that in a tournament that took place in one area (Indianapolis) with limited fans. Now he’s playing in a tournament that looks and feels like a tournamentso what happens from here could make him a smidgen more of something college players aren’t so much anymore: visible.

He even has built some growth into the narrative. In that championship game against Baylor, he took just seven shots in 33 minutes — he did make five — and while he had five rebounds, three assists and two blocks, he also had five turnovers and got viewed as a primo target of Baylor’s aggression.

Come Saturday, he wound up with 36 minutes, 25 points on 10-for-16 shooting, 14 rebounds, four assists and the idea that the pain of the Baylor game of last April helped out with avoiding pain in the Memphis game of this March . Said Nembhard: “I think that the way Baylor guarded us last year with their athleticism and their kind of no-middle play, I think it definitely prepared us for a team like Memphis. Just how much athletes they had, how much length they had, just to play in that type of environment in the NCAA game with the high pressure, I think that definitely prepared us for a game like that, and I think we’re going to have another game kind of similar like that to Arkansas coming up. So it definitely prepared us for the future.”

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So now there’s Timme and Nembhard, together for two seasons and able to fashion those nuanced cohesions of longtime teammates. They’re the kind of Texan-Canadian collaboration that epitomizes sports. And now more people can see them live, which is a long and vivid way from when they stayed in one hotel the whole tournament last year, meaning the intrigued portions of the country learned about Coach Mark Few playing Scrabble.

“Not only Scrabble,” Few said Wednesday, “but I had Drew next door to me with his Xbox until 1 in the morning every night, so, yeah, that was a factor last year also.”

“For 30 days until 1 in the morning.”

“Having fans is awesome,” Timme said. “We don’t have to stay in one hotel for a whole month (this year), so that obviously sucked last year. We were fortunate enough to play, and it was great to play, obviously, but compared to how it’s been so far this year, it’s night and day. I mean, just the fans, being able to interact more with people and not being confined to just a hotel. Being able to go back home for a little bit and even just celebrate this. It’s awesome. It’s just kind of what I envisioned March being like as a kid growing up, and it’s everything I thought it would be.”

In that kaleidoscope, there are his face and his voice, maybe even authentic enough for laypersons to recognize.

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