Former Gator Nembhard helping Gonzaga chase history

Kevin Brockway
Special to the Sun
Gonzaga guard Andrew Nembhard drives on Oklahoma guard Elijah Harkless in the second half of a second-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on March 22. Nembhard played at Florida before transferring.

[Updated 12:03 p.m.] INDIANAPOLIS — Former Florida guard Andrew Nembhard has found his niche in Gonzaga’s high-powered offense. 

 As a result, Nembhard and his Gonzaga teammates have a chance to cap a historic achievement this weekend at the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium. No college team has finished a season unbeaten since 1975-76 Indiana went 32-0 under Bob Knight. The two that have come the closest were UNLV, which lost to Duke as an unbeaten team in the Final Four in 1991 and Kentucky, which was unbeaten when it lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four in 2015. 

Gonzaga (31-0) needs one more win to capture its first national championship in school history and achieve perfection. That quest for top-seed Gonzaga began with its Final Four matchup Saturday against 11-seed UCLA. Jalen Suggs banked in a shot from near midcourt at the buzzer, giving the heavily favored Zags a 93-90 overtime victory against  UCLA. Gonzaga will play second-seeded Baylor for the title Monday night.

“We always talk about just being us,” Nembhard said earlier in the week. “We're not too satisfied about winning a championship. What we do with each other and how we make each other better, that's what we're more satisfied with every day. So I don't think we see too much pressure in it. 

“Also, at this point, every team has to go undefeated now to win the tournament. So there's not really pressure to keep that streak.” 

The 6-foot-5, 193-pound Nembhard has started 14 of 30 games at Gonzaga, averaging 9.1 points and 4.3 assists while shooting 48.4 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from 3-point range. In four NCAA Tournament games, Nembhard has averaged 8.8 points and 4.8 assists. Nembhard’s best NCAA Tournament game came last Sunday at Hinkle Fieldhouse against Creighton, when he scored 17 points and dished 8 assists to help lead the Bulldogs to an 83-65 win. 

Nembhard said the adjustment to new teammates this season has been seamless. He’s alternated running the point with star freshman Jalen Suggs, and has found ways to score and make plays for his teammates off the ball as part of a Gonzaga offense that leads the nation in scoring (91.6 ppg), ranks second in assists (18.6 apg) and ranks first per KenPom in offensive efficiency.  

“We're just moving the ball because we have so many pieces and so much versatility,” Nembhard said following the Creighton win. “It's just like playing at the park with a bunch of guys that click so well. So it's been really fun.” 

In two seasons at Florida, Nembhard established himself as one of the best passing point guards in the SEC. In 67 starts over two seasons, Nembhard dished 367 assists for the Gators. His shooting was erratic, but Nembhard showed a knack for making some big shots, including a game-winning 3-pointer as a freshman in an upset win over LSU at the SEC Tournament. 

 But after Florida struggled through an inconsistent 2019-20 season, finishing the year 19-12 after starting at No. 6 in the country, Nembhard opted to leave UF. 

“After the season I just kind of talked to my family and people close to me, and just felt like I needed a change basketball-wise,” Nembhard said. “Florida wasn’t necessarily the best fit for me, and so Gonzaga was one of the teams that I really kind of looked for, and reached out to because I’ve known their program for the coaching staff already recruited me when I was a senior in high school so I felt comfortable coming here, the playing style.” 

For Florida, the move opened playing time at the point for sophomore Tre Mann, who blossomed into a first-team, All-SEC point guard before declaring for the NBA draft last week.  The change of scenery also helped Nembhard, who received a waiver to play immediately in 2020-21 rather than sit out a year. Gonzaga coach Mark Few said he discussed the move with Suggs before pursuing the waiver. 

“He just got the biggest grin on his face,” Few said. “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. And I told the staff after I met with Jalen, you know, this takes us from top 15, top 20 to top 5 and National Championship contender. It really has. He's a terrific ball screen player, but I'm telling you, he's really, really done a fantastic job for us defensively. I think it's a little bit gone unnoticed maybe.” 

 Few said Nembhard also has adjusted to Gonzaga’s pace after playing slower at Florida the previous season. 

“He plays at our pace and enjoys playing at that pace,” Few said. “He's just a big time passer, and he's become a really good shooter for us also.” 

Nembhard has overcame his share of obstacles, beginning in high school, when he suffered a life-threating intestinal condition during his junior year at Montverde Academy. He was air-lifted to his native Canada and hospitalized for three weeks, losing 25 pounds. The following season, Nembhard helped lead Montverde to a prep national championship and helped lead the under-18 Canadian National Team to a Silver Medal in the FIBA Under-18 Americas championships. Then came two up-and-down seasons at Florida in which Nembhard shouldered the burden of running an offense that struggled to maintain consistency. 

 Now, Nembhard is performing on college basketball’s biggest stage, and enjoying every moment. 

“I'm so grateful to kind of be able to be out there playing every day, especially with COVID this year too,” Nembhard said. “It's just nice to see that I'm back on the court now and doing good things.” 

On Saturday night, Nembhard nailed a 3-pointer to make it 90-85 Zags and help set up the dramatic final 1:15. Nembhard finished with 11 points and eight assists.

"Big time shot, that's my guy!" Suggs said of Nembhard's OT shot.